Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

Dear Readers:

Today we bring you a special edition of the Blog which took a good deal of work, by a team of people, to produce.

A decade ago the streets of Cochabamba were made known worldwide when the people of this city came out by the thousands to take back their public water system from Bechtel in the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt. In the days of that revolt and in the ten years since the Democracy Center has written a good deal about these events – Blogs, briefing papers, magazine articles, book chapters and more.

As the ten year anniversary of the Water Revolt approaches, we are going back to it, to dig deeper, and especially to look at a basic question – What difference did it make? We have already written a good deal about that, including this chapter from our recent book Dignity and Defiance and this briefing paper published last year. These writings have not been varnished versions of that history. They have included accounts of the ongoing problems with Cochabamba’s state-run water company along with the stories of the heroism and courage involved in taking it back a decade ago.

With this Blog we want to focus on a very specific piece of the post Water Revolt story, one of the lesser known: How the neighborhoods of Cochabamba’s impoverished south side have taken into their own hands the challenge of getting water.

To get that story we bring you an important new video that examines the issue and brings you right into the neighborhoods involved and with their leaders. We also have an extensive article, below. Because of it’s length, 15 minutes, we have broken the video into two parts. You can see part one by clicking on the screen above, or you can go directly to these links on YouTube:

Part One
Part Two

The production of the video and Blog post was a collective effort of the Democracy team but in particular Elizabeth Cooper, a student at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts who joined us for part of her summer to work on the project, along with Democracy Center stalwarts Leny Olivera and Aldo Orellana. I think you will see that they have offered up something truly worth watching and reading.

This is just the first installment of what we hope will be a series of reflective pieces on the legacy of the Water Revolt leading up to the ten year anniversary next April.

Jim Shultz

Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

Written by Elizabeth Cooper

In 2000 the attempt by the World Bank, the Bolivian government and the California-based Bechtel Corporation to privatize Cochabamba’s water system led to a powerful popular revolt. The state-owned water company, SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado) resumed control of the water system after Bechtel was expelled.

However, the successful revolt against privatization did not end the struggles over water access and control for the city. Unfortunately, SEMAPA’s continued problems of unaccountability, institutional corruption, and inefficiency have only increased the popular dissatisfaction with the state-owned model of water management.

Frustration with the failures of both models – corporate-run and state-run – has spawned strong interest in an alternative that challenges this state/private dichotomy. In fact, in the wake of Bechtel’s expulsion, calls for social control over the state company gave rise to “citizen representative” elections which were meant to bridge the gap between the company bureaucracy and the people. But when elections for those positions were held less than a year later public passions had dissipated and only four percent of the population voted.

The Search for Water in Cochabamba’s Impovershed South

In the Southern Zone of the city, however, where SEMAPA water service has never truly reached, “public/social control” over water implies a completely different level of accountability and participation. Many neighborhoods have developed water cooperatives, through which they have built the infrastructure of wells, pumps and piping to connect their households to the regional water grid. They have organized themselves into asambleas, consensus-based councils in which the entire community participates. These asambleas in turn elect Presidents, who are unpaid and whose service rotates among community members. The Presidents answer to the ultimate authority of the entire asamblea.

The Primero de Mayo Cooperative, in a neighborhood in the 9th District of Cochabamba, sits some six miles south of the city center. In its office, Don Zenón, the cooperative’s president, describes the organization’s roots. He tells us that in 1989, when the neighborhood of Primero de Mayo was still a small settlement, the neighbors together began developing a system to distribute the water. They discovered a spring from which water flowed at a rate of one half liter per minute. First they transported the water in old milk containers on the backs of donkeys. Then they built a container to capture the water from the spring. With the help of an NGO, they were able to build a larger tank to store the water. Later, between a small grant they received and the contributions of the residents themselves, they dug a well. When they dug the well, they needed electricity to make the pump work, and this too they brought themselves from a neighboring town, with each of the 45 residents contributing 50 dollars to lay the wires.

After they dug the first well, Don Zenón says that more and more people began to arrive. They continued expanding, digging more wells, until they had three. “The people kept arriving,” he says. “And with more people, there are more problems. A lot of things happened—the residents fought, money was lost, but we were able to maintain the system. After that came the idea of organizing a [formal water] cooperative. In the run up to the Water Revolt in 1999 we began to organize the cooperative, and it was created in 2000.” The Primero de Mayo cooperative now serves 1000 families.

The Villa Venezuela cooperative, also located on Cochabamba’s southern periphery, was born out of a similar process. The residents of what was then a small settlement each contributed money, and they partnered with a Catholic sisterhood to construct their first well. As the community grew, they sought other financing and continued digging wells. As the water system grew, so did the population. The system now consists of three elevated tanks and wells. Doña Silvia Martínez, one of the administrators of the cooperative, says that they now serve 270 families.

Like Villa Venezuela and Primero de Mayo, the majority of the Southern Zone is not served by SEMAPA. For neighborhoods without cooperative water systems, residents must buy their water from aguateros, the trucks that pass through, selling water of totally unguaranteed and generally dangerously low quality, at a price five to 10 times that of the cost of wat
er provided by SEMAPA in the city center. While water coming through SEMAPA’s system to homes in the center costs 2 or 3 Bs. ($.30 to $.40 USD) per cubic meter, the poor quality water Southern Zone residents are obliged to buy from the aguateros costs around 25 Bs. ($3.60 USD) per cubic meter.

Despite the facts that Southern Zone actually makes up nearly two thirds of the area of the municipality of Cochabamba, and that its population accounts for half of that of Cochabamba city, it is often treated like a marginal area and is traditionally attended to last, if at all, by municipal representatives. For Ramiro Balderrama, a researcher on the Southern Zone for Fundación Ghandi in Cochabamba City, the challenges that the residents of the Southern Zone confront, including those of lack of access to water, are indicative of this neglect. According to the World Health Organization, he says, an individual requires 50 liters of water a day to live in a dignified way. In times of Revolt or natural catastrophe, individuals need at least 20 liters a day to get by. In the Southern Zone, the average individual “gets by” on a permanent basis with 11 to 19 liters of water a day. “It is as though those in the Southern Zone have lived through two tsunamis, or two Iraq Revolts,” he explains.

In contrast, those who live in the center of the city enjoy easy enough access to use at least 50 liters of water per person per day, and wash their cars, bathe pets and water their gardens on top of that.

Even though they had been excluded from the benefits of SEMAPA’s supposedly public services, these neighborhoods were some of the most active in the resistance against the Bechtel privatization. Along with the government decision to turn SEMAPA over to the California giant came a new water law that would have required the wells they built to secure government permits and possibly be put under Bechtel’s control.

In the face of that threat, and given the resident’s history of organization and resistance, the privatization became an obvious target. Many of those southern neighborhoods are populated by ex-miners who moved as whole communities to Cochabamba when neoliberal reforms closed some of the mines in the country’s highlands and sought to break the miners’ unions.

For these Bolivians it has always been clear to them that “water is life.” It is not hard to understand why they would organize to challenge the idea that water, a public resource and a shared responsibility, would have to come to them through hands other than their own, and especially hands controlled by a corporation a hemisphere away.

An Alternative to the State-Run Company

In other parts of Cochabamba people struggled in the Water Revolt to bring the water back under the control of SEMAPA. But in the Southern Zone, they fought to return the water to a different kind of public control. They pushed not to return to the status quo of an ineffective state company. Rather, they fought against the possibility that Bechtel might be able to control and regulate the water they take from their own wells. They refused to let a foreign corporation override their own asambleas and they opposed a system of water for profit.

On this side of the Water Revolt, the water cooperatives are seen as the most viable option for solving issues of water access in the Southern Zone. As complaints of SEMAPA’s inefficiency and corruption mount and the cooperatives’ good reputation spreads, some foreign creditors are now disposed to lend to the cooperatives themselves rather than to the municipal company for development projects. Abraham Grandydier, the president of ASICA-SUR, which is an umbrella non-profit organization of water cooperatives in Cochabamba, explains that the birth of the water cooperatives came out of the idea that to deal with the systematic corruption they were seeing in SEMAPA, the people should be participating in every level of the administration—management, administration, finances, everything.

Even as the cooperatives are successful in developing the organization and infrastructure to connect more and more households in their neighborhoods to the systems, the shortage of good water is still a problem. Silvia Martínez explains that even as Villa Venezuela works with creditors from the EU and ASICA-SUR to increase the reach of the network, it does not want to install the system only to find that there is no decent water to deliver to the users. Right now the water in their system is salty. Most people use it mainly for washing, although some people drink it too, but always with the risk that their children or they themselves will get sick, she says.

Currently Villa Venezuela is negotiating with SEMAPA, hoping to have the company deliver better water in large quantities a few times a week to the cooperative, which would then distribute it through its tanks, explains Humberto Orellana Coca, the cooperative’s vice president. Villa Venezuela isn’t far out of SEMAPA’s reach—it is practically a matter of a few blocks, but up until this point extending the network to include the neighborhood has not been a high enough priority. When asked if Primero de Mayo would be interested in a similar arrangement with SEMAPA, the cooperative’s president Don Zenón says wryly that in Primero de Mayo they don’t believe in SEMAPA anymore, not even for that. “At first, we brought the managers and the mayor’s office here a number of times. They talked to us about miracles, so that we would believe them, and when they came, we prepared them all kinds of food, but afterwards when they went back to their offices they had already forgotten about us.”

Though the cooperatives have different visions about bringing the water to their communities, they share the certainty that once the water arrives, they will not hand over its administration to anyone else. For them, it works. Abraham Grandydier, the president of ASICA-SUR, explains how efficiently members resolve problems in the cooperative when the cooperative’s president is their neighbor, which not only drastically increases the accountability of the organization, but also facilitates open communication between the users and the administrators—who are essentially one and the same. All the policies and prices are common knowledge, having been decided upon communally in the asamblea. “It is decided, and then it is done,” says Don Zenón. Grandydier contrasts these familiar relationships in the communal model to the relationship between SEMAPA’s bureaucracy and its customers, in which the clients couldn’t tell you how much their water costs, much less to whom they pay their monthly fees. For members of the cooperatives, a public service is a service powered by their work, according to their decisions and carried out by their own members.

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16 Responses to Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don't see how cooperatives can be the solution for providing clean and affordable water. Where will the money come to extract and distribute the water in the long turn? What zones of the city will it cover? Who determines prices? Who are those with the technical, econonomic, and financial know how that would essentially create a parallel de facto SEMAPA? What are the rules and regulations? Who's accountable for the cooperatives running smoothly? Questions abound and abound.

    Those who kicked out Aguas del Tunari really messed up, that's for sure. If Agua del Tunari would have been left alone, water would have reached ALL masses and at affordable prices. Instead, they forced us to stick with that cesspool(pun intended) of corruption and bad governance which is SEMAPA.
    It's medically understandable, though. All of us have been a "Perfect Latin American Idiot" at one point in our lives. That's not the worse part. The worse part is continuing to be one. Too many of those in Cbba.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Guess the fellow above didn't read the article or watch the video. Oh well, easier to comment than read I suppose.

  3. Tambopaxi says:

    ..If I read this correctly, al final de cuentas, it still comes down to dealing with SEMAPA for the water supply; local springs just aren't up to the task. Logic dictates that the local communities will have to make some of deal with SEMAPA if they hope to augment their water supply, or perhaps, get water at all.

    The local coop story is nice, but that's all; it's nice. Ultimately, though, the water's going to have to come from somewhere, and it appears to be SEMAPA (I don't know what Agua del Tunari is or was..) so the question comes down to, what's the financial price, and what's the political price (in terms of say so/control) of the water? I presume the answer to this question (and those of Anonymous 10:12, which are valid as well) will be in future installments?

  4. diditforthelulz says:

    So jim, what role are you playing in the olivira(tm.) movie being filmed? and what do you think of his gratuitous "P.R.otest" the other day in the plaza against the masist alcalde? and my regards to his beaten wife and estranged children, you are a good padrino.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I liked this post. I couldn't get this information anywhere else, and I'm not that far away from Cochabamba. This, would qualify as stellar to me.

    Now the comments, yes, best served with some good whiskey.

    We have a lot of money sitting in foreign bank accounts earning laughable interest (our lauded foreign reserves, which are loaned back to us at high interest by the global financial charity racket). Some of that money (more than the $1 billion already loaned to YPFB this year) could be brought back for service projects including water… be it through SEMAPA or through Cooperatives, I think the people who are affected and not bloggers or commenters anywhere should decide how this is implemented.

    The comments above… typical naysaying. If a multinational corporation isn't present, it must be impossible huh? How did humanity survive for thousands of years?

    Yes, after two or three years of near starvation, malnutrition for their kids, and other "side effects" of paying Bechtel's huge price hikes, these silly latin american idealists would have had top-class water service.

    "Along with the government decision to turn SEMAPA over to the California giant came a new water law that would have required the wells they built to secure government permits and possibly be put under Bechtel’s control."

    Hey, I dig a well, I make do with my community for dozens of years, Banzer bows down to Bechtel and now Bechtel owns MY wells? Hell no. Where is the free-market spirit there?

    For these Bolivians it has always been clear to them that “water is life.”

    Hey I think water is life too, though I've thrown my share of wasteful water balloons and today enjoy running water still while the laderas are drying up… end rant looking forward to more stellarness

  6. Bolivia Libre says:

    As always, the neo fascist anos cannot handle the true; and treat any opinion that favors anything that is corporate owned, or run, as the evil; how pathetic. One wanders if they are using cooperative manufacture computers and cooperative internet services to do so. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe cooperatives are capable off running “potable” water systems; all we have to do is look at SAGUAPAC in Santa Cruz and admire.

    The root causes of the water problem was never accepted by Jim, one of the reasons is that his organization is in part a key reason half of Cochabamba doesn’t have potable water, which by the way, is the same half before Bechtel.

    The writer of the article said, “Frustration with the failures of both models – corporate-run and state-run – has spawned strong interest in an alternative that challenges this state/private dichotomy”. What a lie, the corporate model was never put to the test, it was taken out of the option list by the use of violence where the most important sector opposing was the cistern truck owners; who do not depend on SEMAPA for water and are the beneficiaries of the disgrace of the people from South Cochabamba. Jim knows it, but it goes against his violent principle of building democracy from the civil violence up.

    At least the video, verily, shows how the cistern water is more expensive than the SEMAPA water; what it also shows is that water doesn’t come free or from blocking the streets. Those forming cooperatives to obtain water have to pay, a lot, for it. In money, administrative personnel, equipment, energy for their pumps, labor, etc, etc. Off course, Jim will not show charts, at least under scientific evidence, that cooperative water is cheaper than the one, which was in addition potable, offered by Bechtel.

    The racist maSSist politics on the article are also very obvious; the issue of poor and exiled peasants and miners living in the South that have no water against the people in the center of the city and rich north who have water to bate their dog. It is like hearing Evo Morales speak himself. But, do you think the people in the North and center of Cochabamba had water from their very beginning? Are they establishing there only 5 to 15 years ago, without any respect for city ordinances and paying no taxes, like the people in the South? The answer is NO, a 100 times NO.

    Off course, for Jim and his henchmen, it is easier to insinuate that those on the side of the city that do not vote for Evo Morales are for some reason somewhat responsible for the martyrdom of the ones that do; I guess that is what in Jim’s and some of the maSSist acolytes minds is “stellarness”.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Bolivia Libre:

    I have read your comments for a time from here in the U.S., including this one, and here's the thing. I think that you should decide whether your goal is to be genuinely convincing (because you are obviously intelligent and capable of serious analysis) or just to use this space as a place to practice a pretty predictable and not especially interesting imitation of a Fox commentary.

    If you went with the first, I think people might actually engage your argument and that would be a good thing all around, which I assume you believe as well. You also get so wrapped up in your rhetoric that you forget to be accurate. For example:

    "Those forming cooperatives to obtain water have to pay, a lot, for it. In money, administrative personnel, equipment, energy for their pumps, labor, etc, etc."

    The clear point is that these cooperatives avoid out-of-pocket costs for administrative personnel because they manage the ystem democratically themselves. If you want credibility, loyalty to fact is a useful trait.

    You are certainly free to stomp on this comment as you do others, making it just another target for whatever it is you need a target for. But you might also consider these points and perhaps join us here in more the style of Norman who has always impressed me (whether I agree with him or not) by his confident cool aimed at persuasion as opposed to ranting exaggeration that simply keeps you in your little box.

  8. Tambopaxi says:

    Anon 6:33's comments are well taken; civil discourse is always more conducive to objective examination of the facts and the situation at hand.

    Still, I can understand where BL is trying to go (and where the video and posting avoid going), and that's the question of whether Cochabamba, the city in its entirety, is better off in terms of water supply/service that it was 10 years ago, when Bechtel was thrown out.

    As I mentioned in my earlier comment, water coops are nice (and sometimes, but not always, democratic), but in an urban setting (rural water coops are quite another matter), and specifically, in Cochabamba, eventually, they're going to have to deal with SEMAPA to get water.

    At the same time, it's improbable that all neighborhoods in Cochabamba are going to have access to two or three wells as does the coop that's portrayed in the video and the DC's posting. That's why I say it's a nice story, and a true one, I'm sure. In the final analysis, though, if the citizens of Cochabamba as a whole (not one or two, or a few coops, who are lucky to have their own wells) can expect to have adequate supply, at some point SEMAPA will have to take charge of the city – or should, at any rate.

    …Which brings us back to BL's rather garbled – and emotional – points. The CD posting starts out smartly, saying that we should ask whether Cochabamba's better off now, 10 years after Bechtel – and then ducks the question; it focuses on one coop (nice story) references the deprived southern part of city and leaves it asi.

    So… What's the real story regarding the water situation in city as a whole? I should say that I've asked this same question in postings in this blog over the last couple of years, and I've never seen a clear, not to say, comprehensive answer. My suspicion (nothing more; I write from afar, like Anon 6:33)is that the number of connections per capita is lower now than it was 10 years ago in the city. As well, I would wonder about the constancy of the supply to the city as a whole; I shouldn't be surprised if there are outages at various times and places in SEMAPA areas.

    Again, the Center for Democracy doesn't address these points and I wonder why they don't…

    Finally, re: Anon 6:33's comments regarding admin costs, democratic management, etc., are nice, but not accurate. I worked with rural water coops and helped set up several in Central America. Boards of Directors are usually volunteers, but coop Directors and staff are paid workers, almost always. There are always exceptions, but usually, the staff is paid, and so there are admin costs, costs which must be met by charging water fees to users – there is no thing as a free lunch, as they say, or in this case, free water….

  9. rose says:

    I had not any kind of information about this news.I came to know many new information from this post regarding water situation.Thank you very much for giving such information to us.


  10. Bolivia Libre says:

    Ano 6:33 PM, you implied you wanted to debate and then simply wrote I was not accurate when I indicated that obtaining water by the neighborhoods from South Cochabamba have a cost and you come yourself with a grossly inaccurate explanation saying that because these cooperatives manage the system democratically themselves they avoid out-of-pocket costs. I know for a fact that is incorrect, and as explained later on by Tambotaxi, there is not such thing as a free ride. People administrating anything have to eat and tend their families, so they must get paid somehow.

    My point in the particular Cochabamba City issue is clear; because of political motivation, not for the better well of the people, the private sector was violently expelled from the city before they have a chance to give a solution to the problem. A lot of things where misrepresented, by Jim specially; with the noble idea that water is a right that must be given for free to the people. Now, Jim and his group are highlighting the small work of a cooperative that they possible have interests on as the solution to the problem. Well, that right isn’t coming for free; and isn’t coming potable either.

    I took the precaution not to “stomp” over your point of view, which was that I have an inaccurate rhetoric, let’s see if you have the guts to argue your point; I am particularly interested on your explanation about how the people running water cooperatives in Cochabamba do it for free.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yes, Bolivia Libre, we get that YOU would prefer that the people of Cochabamba's southern neighborhoods pay a multinational corporation, in hard cash, to administer their water system rather than managing it together on a community basis.

    But here is the deal little guy, that's not what they want. Get it yet?

    Wherever you happen to live yourself — Miami, Los Angeles, Bethesda — you are welcome to contract with a corporation to run your water, wash your clothes, or pick your nose for you if you like. That is your choice.

    We understand the angst it must cause you to see people making different choices about to run their lives than you would make for them, but so it goes with democracy.

    Now why don't you just relax and try to get over it. :)

  12. Anonymous says:

    Ooooh, corporations! What a scary word! Evil incarnate!

    Oooooops, I better throw away all my gadgets and everything else that civilization offers because "corporations" made them.

  13. Bolivia Libre says:

    Ano 11:22 PM, I can assure you I live a lot closer to the southern side of Cochabamba city than you; as a matter of fact, I do own property there. And I also know much better than you that people there don’t give a rat’s ass about who gives them potable water; they just want somebody to do it. Off course, there are some liberal fascist like you in the area that believe they should have it for free if it happens to be a corporation doing the job.

    You don’t have the same rhetoric than ano 6:33 PM, so I will assume it chicken it out, so I will challenge you to explain us why you thing the cooperative mentioned by the DC is running it with democracy.

    BTW, you don’t need to relax, is always nice having anos rolling over around.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Something is missing in the narrative about these water cooperatives. I have done research within an OTB (Organisacion Territorial de Base) in Zona Sur in 2006. I have talked with the poorest of the poor on the case of water provision in Zona Sur. This particular OTB as well has a water cooperative and at the time they were trying to organise water supply 'for everyone' in the neighbourhood through a water tank and individual water connections. They were cooperating with this NGO called 'Agua Tuya' ( It worked like this: if the president of the OTB could get 'everyone' on board to vote a 'yes' to water for 'everyone', they could cooperate with Agua Tuya to build the watertank and the pipes, and use the full budget for the OTB that is dispursed through the Ley de Participacion Popular to supress the costs for 'everyone'. Now what are the problems?
    1. The LPP provides money per head of the neighbourhood. Only around 700 people in this OTB are registered, while 1500 people are living there. The yearly budget is 52,2 bolivianos per head ($7,30). Therefore the yearly budget of the OTB (37.500 bolivianos/ 5300$) though it really should be double.
    2. After deducting the budget of the LPP from the price that Agua Tuya is asking for the connection, Agua Tuay is still asking 2890 bolivianos ($410) per household connection, which they can repay in 12 monthly installments. Well if you realize that most families in this neighbourhood earn about 10 to 50 bolivianos per day ($1.40 to $7), how do you think they are going to pay this tremendous amount?
    3. Only the rich in the neighbour can afford a water connection, and the LPP yearly budget will be used to reduce the total price because 'everyone' voted a 'yes' to water. But realize that not everyone attended the meeting where the 'yes' was voted (simply because most peple do not have time to attend these meetings and because quite a few opposed their president). And remember that the LPP budget is to be used to benefit EVERYONE in the neighbourhood. Not just the 'richest poor'.

    So, yet again, the poorest of the poor are excluded, and system that is supposedly there to benefit them, works against them.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Bolivia Libre,

    Okay my little one, take another valium and calm down. You get so wrapped up when anyone questions your complete authority over all things Bolivian, no? It can't be good for your stress.

    We are all happy to know that your landholdings include some acreage on the south. Do you fly in from Santa Cruz to visit them often? This of course does make you an expert in all things Barrio Sur and certainly more than those people in the video who actually used their real names. Let us accept that they are all ignorant next to you.

    Ahh, but the mystery remains, what is it you liked so much about Bechtel's price hikes. You didn't get a little piece of that action did you?

    Love and kisses.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Supply and demand, baby.