Cochabamba: From War to Water Management

Source: Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

Through the water war of April, 2000, the poor of the city and countryside of Cochabamba succeeded in expelling the multinational corporation which tried to charge them for this most basic common good. Between 2003 and 2005, the poor of the entire country drove out the neoliberal model of water management. Now it is community management of water that is the unresolved challenge.

The pavement ends too soon in the barrios in the southern part of Cochabamba. At only five kilometers from the center, one can barely make out an irregular layer on the broad avenues that the cars traverse with difficulty. When one looks in the direction of the hills which dominate a wide, treeless valley, one sees only dust blowing over the streets and irrigation channels changed into parched ditches through which at least a thread of water ought to run.

Rows of houses appear climbing upward until they are lost to sight, nearly reaching the crest of the hills which is dominated by a very dry climate. We are in one of the most important barrios of the southern periphery, Villa Sebastián Pagador, or District 14, established 32 years ago by immigrants from Oruro. The southern zone, made up of six districts, includes half the city’s population, some 250,000 inhabitants—the poorest inhabitants—who are the most affected by the inefficiency of the Municipal Potable Water and Sewer Service (SEMAPA).

The Bolivian state decided in its neoliberal period that only the rich and middle classes would have water; the essential service would therefore not reach the poor, in particular the immigrants of the last generation. To alleviate or even to possibly resolve this grave problem, neighbors in these communities decided to organize themselves, creating water committees, associations, and cooperatives, constructing distribution networks, storage tanks, and drilling the wells themselves using their scarce resources.

In the neighborhoods of southern Cochabamba 120 water committees are functioning, plus some 150 more in the peripheries of the urban zone and an even greater number in rural areas. These organizations regulate the use of water according to the habits and customs of the communities. In the urban zone to the south, between 70% and 80% of the population is not served by the municipal water company. As such, the water committees supply almost 30% of the population and the remaining residents receive water from water trucks. There are hundreds of thousands of people organized solely around the water issue, while a multitude of territorial organizations exist.

The celebrated "water war" can only be explained as the result of a community decision made by hundreds of thousands of people to defend a resource, a feat that was not created or administered by the state but rather by urban and rural communities themselves. In the city, the individuals that make up the community water systems come from many regions of the country, a mix of immigrant campesinos and relocated miners.1 "These two characteristics strongly contribute to the community organization around water," state two directors of the water movement.2

The immigrant campesinos contribute by sharing their Andean traditions of collective work run in shifts, known as the "ayni," while the miners bring their vast organizing experience in the labor unions of the mining industry. Each water system has an average of 200 families associated with it but some have no more than 30 or 40 users. The majority do not have legal status. The residents who have decided not to organize themselves, buy their water from water trucks which traverse the city all day charging excessive prices for water of dubious quality.

Don Fabián Condori, a Life for the Community

It’s the middle of the afternoon on Saturday and the hot sun beats down, making the climb harder. We arrive with Boris at a small farm with adobe walls; we open the wooden door and a large open space with two small, tidy offices on the sides appears. We are in the Association of the Production and Administration of Water and Drainage (APAAS), the first water system of Cochabamba and one of the most consolidated. Don Fabián Condori receives us with a broad smile which deepens the lines which mark his face.

"I’m 61 years old and I’ve spent 19 years in the water system. I was born in Oruro and I arrived in Sebastián Pagador 30 years ago when there were only 70 families. At the end of the 90s almost 80% of us were from Oruro, but now we have 60,000 inhabitants from every corner of the country, above all from the Andes. I think people chose this place for its climate, its wealth, or for the good food and fruit." Fabián told his life story calmly, as if he were speaking of someone else, perhaps because he didn’t think of himself as playing the lead role in the history he was recounting.

In 1990 the city declared Sebastian Pagador, which at the time had only 5,000 inhabitants, a "red zone" because of its complete lack of water. "It was a desert," he said. "It still didn’t have avenues, only roads that the people created with picks and shovels. There was an aqueduct for irrigation and near an irrigation ditch, some wells from which we fetched water for ourselves. In addition there were cisterns where water was sold." He said that the majority of his neighbors were manual laborers who worked for themselves, merchants, artisans, carpenters, tailors. "Like everyone else, I built my first house with adobe."

In Villa Pagador the old people like Fabián still speak Quechua, listen to Andean music, and celebrate carnival in grand style, as they did in Oruro, with morenadas and diabladas and as many as 11 groups and 200 dancers, some of whom come from the interior of the department.

"At the beginning, since there were few people, we managed with the irrigation channel and the little wells where water flowed. But by the 80s there were already more people and a little school with 25 students. The 3- and 4-year-olds played by bathing themselves with buckets of sand." It was then that the Committee to Promote Water was born in a meeting of 90 people. It was the first committee in Cochabamba. We began to design the excavation of a distribution network, because first we would build the network and then we would look for water."

In 1990 they began breaking up land and digging ditches for the 390 families which are part of the water committee. "Every family paid one boliviano a month for explosives, tools, and rent for offices. They were their own source of funds. The work lasted three years. Every family had to dig six meters a month at a depth of a half meter. All this is rock, very hard, so we had to go very slowly."

The design is very simple: the ditches come from every house and are connected at the center which in turn is connected with the pipe that leads from the well. "The whole community participated, and whoever didn’t work was left without water. There was a person in control called the block chief to see how the work was going. We set our unqualified hands to the work. We were the machinery. When the pipes were laid, and a bed of sifted earth 30 centimeters deep was made so that any vibrations wouldn’t damage the piping."

During the three years that the work required, there were 105 meetings, one every 10 days." It was a hard fight, and we also fought among ourselves. The problem is that people didn’t get rest. They came from their jobs to do this; every family had to provide 35 eight-hour days of work. Any family member could work, but it was mainly the women who worked. Everyone was had blisters and was very tired. Picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, sifting and compacting the dirt. It was a lot of work, a lot of work. I realized that women are the best workers."

Only the dream of having water kept them going for all those months in precarious conditions in neighborhoods full of ditches. Fabián did not shy away from the internal problems of the committee. "There was a lot of fighting. The first year and a half, we made a lot of progress, but at the end of the second year we already had problems: we almost destroyed ourselves. Some of the directors worked, but others only watched. About half of the directors put their shoulder to the wheel."

Wells and Pumps

In two and a half years they finished digging the ditches and the laying the pipes, but nobody had thought about where the water would come from. They got project funding—which no other committee was able to obtain—from the World Bank to construct the water transport network, a large installation of pipes five kilometers long which climbed 400 meters up the mountain and continued to a well drilled seven kilometers from the neighborhood. "There we used dynamite and contracted miners because it is solid rock, and a pick and shovel would be useless. It took six months more work until we were done. And as soon as we finished, we asked where the water source was … No one had thought about that. There was a lot of community pressure on account of this."

For weeks they consulted engineers and geologists who advised them on where to buy a plot of land, specifically, on the other side of the mountain where there were reserves of water. "We bought the land but we said it was for a warehouse, because they weren’t going to allow us otherwise. We began to cut down the bushes, we went up there to work, and began to drill. At 98 meters water gushed out good and strong. But we were delayed another six months because other directors from other sectors turned up and brought the work to a standstill: they needed the water. We drilled two wells, one for us and the other for them because it was their land."

The next step was to construct a 100 cubic meter storage tank at the top of the hill. The next obstacle was the pumps and the pipes. They had to change the pumps a number of times because they didn’t hold up and then the pipes burst due to the pressure. "Fights broke out among us again because we couldn’t decide what type of pump to use or the type of pipes: first PVC, then iron, finally galvanized."

On Feb. 15, 1993 they inaugurated the first community water well in the whole city. "We opened the taps on the hill, but after three hours, nothing arrived. Everyone was waiting in the streets and no water. The people began to despair. Finally just when we were about to disperse, the water arrived, through a piping network which had burst. The problem had been a pipe in the network that had failed. But at least it was a sign that water would arrive. We fixed the problem, inaugurated the system, and had a huge fiesta."

The ups and downs that Fabián describes were similar to those in more than a hundred water committees in the southern zone. In many cases people drilled wells in the same neighborhood but the water was salty and not suitable for consumption, or there was only a little water or it was used up. Almost all the committees have a tank. Those that don’t have a well buy the water at the cisterns and fill the tank, and from the tank it goes to people’s homes. It is an immense decentralized network constructed on the basis of reciprocity and mutual aid and administered in the same manner.

As a university study indicates: "The self-management of the services and the infrastructure is seen by the neighbors as a reason for pride, as it should be, thus they don’t want anything from the authorities."3 However, once the water has arrived, the problem of administration begins. Broadly speaking, two different situations exist: one strictly technical, related to the pumps and the maintenance of the network, and the other having to do with the price of electricity. The participation of the community neighbors diminishes considerably at this stage as well.

Don Fabián recognizes that in the water committee of his barrio another stage began when the families had water in their homes. "We had courses on maintenance of the network, we wrote statutes, rules, we addressed the legal status, and we held seminars because there wasn’t a single plumber; we didn’t know anything. It was the first community water system of Cochabamba, the first experiment, the most complicated, but at the same time we were privileged because we had a loan."

Today there are 612 families connected to the system and 200 others on a waiting list. Every family pays an average of 16 bolivianos (USD $2) a month to the organization. "But the first month the three people who worked on maintenance and pumping and the three in the administration weren’t charged anything. At the beginning we didn’t even have a treasury. Nothing, not one boliviano. It was a challenge to make this work without money. At the beginning we charged everyone the same, but everything we got was going to pay for the electricity for the pump. The workers only received 50 bolivianos each."4 Then at a meeting they created the rate structure and began to straighten out the expenses.

Now they have only four assemblies a year. One of the major difficulties was the need to fight for a special rate for electricity because of the high cost to run the pumps. They succeeded. Fabián’s APAAS dedicates a good portion of its time to supporting other water committees in maintaining and improving their pumps, a job they have become experts at.

"Here there is a lot of social pressure, there are no secrets, everything is out in the open, every user knows everything that happens, everything is recorded. We have had a lot of experience. All this: the equipment, the pumping system, all that we did with the utilities. We are self-sustaining, including the purchase of three plots for the use of the barrio. We have worked together. Sure we fight, you have to because if we work we have to make observations, but all this criticism has to be accepted," concluded Don Fabián.

The Return of the State

In 2004 the Association of Community Water Systems of the South (ASICA-SUR) was created in the search for a single solution to the water problems of the southern zone. They counted on the support of SEMAPA at a time when the directors of the zone responded to the advice of the coordinator of the defense of water and life who played an important role in the "water war."5 They began with 40 committees, but now there are already 120.

The organization has a governing body named directly by the assembly of the representatives of the community water systems. But its functioning depends on financing from an Italian NGO that has already lost contributions from its affiliates. The directors do not receive compensation.6

The main question that ASICA-SUR wanted answers for was, "After the water war, what?" The answer they were encountering was co-management as a new model of community-public management."7 The task is to look for a new model of management that would go beyond the big-state business, which turned out to be very difficult to manage and control, to a model which is supported by the community culture and its long experience in managing common goods.

Broadly speaking, the proposal consists of establishing the co-management of the SEMAPA-ASICAS water systems "through a public entity, collective and communitarian, which is in charge of the joint administration of a collective community good such as water, where the two principle actors (SEMAPA and ASICA-SUR) would always be coordinated in their management of water and where each, furthermore, would have co-responsibilities for the service."8

So, the organization developed training workshops on administrative management of the water committees, accounting, management of the pumps, assembly and disassembly of things like electrical and mechanical components. Technicians were contracted for the workshops, and people could count on the support of the APAAS, directed by Don Fabián. Furthermore, there were close relations between the water systems of Santa Cruz and other cities where water committees and cooperatives also existed.

There were also workshops on the care and use of water and skills for dealing with the energy company so that they would succeed in getting the company to allow them to modify the tariff structure and thus lower the costs for all of the committees.

The major change happened with the arrival of Evo Morales’s government in January of 2006. His government began to implement SEMAPA’s old plans to grant water and sewage services to the southern zone along different lines. The water systems and ASICA-SUR had to face a new reality. The co-management scheme passed from words to action. The challenges grew and became much more complex.

At this moment, there are three big water projects for the southern zone of Cochabamba. PROJECT BID (Interamerican Development Bank) has USD $8 million for the actualization and execution of a plan for water service expansion in parts of districts 6, 7, 8, and 14 in the southern zone, managed by SEMAPA.

Another project, from the Agency for International Cooperation of Japan (JICA), is destined for some districts in the southern zone with SEMAPA in charge of its execution.

Finally, the Program of Sector Support in Water Storage and Drainage (PASAAS) program is the result of an agreement between the government of Bolivia and the European Union which is undertaking projects for potable water and sewage for 22 community water systems in the southern zone with a donation of USD $4 million.9 The project is called "Improvement and Expansion of Potable Water Systems and Construction of Sewage Treatment in Districts 7, 8, 9, and 14 of the Southern Zone in the Community Water Systems pertaining to ASICA-SUR."

The singular aspect of the PASAAS project is that the organization ASICA-SUR and the water committees are in charge of supervising the whole process of design, contracting, adjudication, and execution of the works. "The participation of the beneficiary population is realized through a Consulting Committee (made up of three representatives selected from the community), representatives of the water system, and directly through the community assemblies where different representatives report on information needed for making decisions later.10

Secondly, the work won’t replace existing water systems, but rather will "improve and expand them," so that families who still don’t have water will receive it. ASICA-SUR and the community water systems have become the main agents of management and project execution, coordinating institutions, community water systems, and construction companies. As a result, six supervisors have been contracted to oversee the work of seven companies, both in regard to the execution of the work and to the quality of construction materials.

Finally, there are the training workshops for technical, administrative, public health, and environmental management of water services. The whole process is characterized by a number of facts: the construction company is obligated to contract preferentially with men and women who live in the areas where the works are being undertaken; the water committees have long experience which permits them to supervise companies which in the past were guilty of fraud and corruption; they continue creating new water committees. Already there are 150 in the southern zone, through which the core organization continues to build strength.

The Difficult Creation of a New World

The southern zone of Cochabamba is a cauldron of works, meetings, and assemblies from which channels, tanks, and collectors are conceived. For the first time in a long time, the State is beginning to bring to fruition basic works such as drainage systems and networks of potable water for domestic use. The absence of the State forced neighbors to organize themselves as a community to resolve their problems, among them the water supply. Now that the State has entered the picture, new debates arise.

In 2003 the periodical Yaku al Sur raised interesting questions: "What will happen to our committees when SEMAPA receives the concession for our districts? Will our organization be terminated? Will we be able to influence the decisions of SEMAPA after that? Will we become individual and anonymous users of a municipal business? Or will we be able to preserve our organizations, and our decision-making and management abilities, abilities which we have demonstrated for years?"11

The questions point to the core of the problem: Who will have the power in the management of water? Already, almost 10 years have passed since the "water war" and the members of the community water systems have learned a lot based on their own long experience. We can establish three important lessons:

  1. The communities were able to construct their whole water system, from the drilling of wells to the construction of connections and domestic networks. Moreover, they learned to maintain the pumps and the pipes in good condition and to repair them, and above all, to administer the whole network.
  2. The communities began by fighting against the privatization of water, but they quickly understood that this wasn’t about the traditional private-state debate. Equal footing in their long experience with the municipal business SEMAPA led them to formulate the proposal of a "public-communal" or "communitarian" model which in a certain sense is private (because it doesn’t depend on the state but rather directly on the citizenry), but at the same time it is public (it doesn’t pertain to an individual, but to the whole community.)"12
  3. They learned that a large business, although it may be the property of the state (and not private), can’t be controlled since it has an enormous bureaucracy with its own interests which are not compatible with those of the residents of poor communities. The history of SEMAPA is one of corruption and inefficiency, even when the water communities were able to name their own directors in the organization. For this reason, they don’t want the power of the state to enter into water provision and they hope to maintain equal footing in the community water systems and perhaps, maintain their own power base.

At this point great difficulties and uncertainties have appeared. ASICA-SUR has come out in favor of co-management, which would pass for the creation of a public, collective, and community entity which would give birth to a union of SEMAPA, ASICA-SUR, and the community water systems. The formula hasn’t yet been designed, but monitoring the project PASAAS could contribute to its realization.

On the other hand, the water committees are very clear that they should not be dissolved when the whole system is terminated, if that is the eventual result. Eduardo Yssa, vice president of ASICA-SUR and a member of the water committee PDA of Villa Sebastián Pagador, maintains that "when we all have piped water and drainage systems, the water committees should not disappear but should continue to act as control mechanisms." Furthermore, he believes that "the water tanks in each neighborhood ought to be maintained so that the committees have equal footing with outside organizations, because it would not be good if a mega-business like SEMAPA administered and managed everything."13

If the communities give up their storage tanks, their piping networks, and water wells, they would be dismantling everything they were able to construct over two decades. Moreover, they would be passing from a decentralized and dispersed service that is controlled at the grassroots level, to a centralized and concentrated system administered by a bureaucracy and technicians who will have real power over an indispensable community resource.

Finally, hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated that they themselves are capable of doing it, of creating something new from nothing, with their own efforts. For those who aspire to a new world, ("Another world is possible," the motto of the Social Forums) achievements such as those of the water committees will be decisive. This has to do with nothing less than the successful administration of common resources in an urban environment, something that many anti-system movements have had little experience with.

Community water management efforts teach us that it is possible to manage things outside of the State and the great private and state businesses; these community efforts created a model which consists wholly of decentralized, horizontal initiatives: successful, sustainable, efficient, and without bureaucracies.

In some way, the experiences of the committees and community water systems of Cochabamba anticipate, in an embryonic fashion, the design that this "other world," as necessary as it is possible, could have.

End Notes

  1. Refers to mine laborers who, after the 1985 closing or privatization of the mines they worked in, emigrated in search of new jobs.
  2. Abraham Grandydier and Rosalio Tinta, ob cit p. 241.
  3. Nelson Antequera Durán, ob cit p.78.
  4. The Mar. 2009 exchange rate calculated one USD at seven bolivianos.
  5. The water social movement was able to get a portion of the municipal company directors named in elections.
  6. Grandydier and Tinta, ob cit.
  7. Idem p.246.
  8. Idem.
  9. Bulletin Yaku al Sur No. 15, ASICA-SUR, 2008, p.4.
  10. Bulletin Yaku al Sur No. 16, ASICA-SUR, Dec 2008, p.2.
  11. Bulletin Yaku al Sur No. 2, Aug 2003, p.1.
  12. Idem p.5.
  13. Interview with Eduardo Yssa.

 Translated for the Americas Program by Esther Buddenhagen.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (


Nelson Antequera Durán, "Dinámica organizativa en la zona sur de Cochabamba," in Villa Libre No. 2, CEDIB, Cochabamba, 2008.

ASICA-SUR (Asociación de Sistemas Comunitarios de Agua del Sur):

CEDIB (Centro de Documentación e Información de Bolivia), magazine Villa Libre No. 2, Cochabamba, 2008.

Abraham Grandydier and Rosalio Tinta, "Experiencia de una asociación de sistemas de agua potable de la zona Sur del municipio de Cochabamba," in Apoyo a la gestión de comités de agua potable, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, 2006.

Yaku al Sur, news bulletin from ASICA-SUR.

Raúl Zibechi, interview with Fabio Condori Guzmán, director of APAAS, Cochabamba, Mar 28, 2009.

Raúl Zibechi, interview with Eduardo Yssa, vice president of ASICA-SUR, Mar 28, 2009.