Cochabamba Water Wars

Bolivia, in the face of economic meltdown in 1985, reached out for financial aid to the World Bank, which in return required the privatization of the country’s railroads, airlines, telephone system, and oil industry. It also pushed for privatization of water. Cochabamba’s waterworks had been owned by the state agency SEMAPA. The system was inefficient, costly, and unable to meet the burgeoning demand with growing scarcity. The Bolivian government put the city’s water supply up for auction, and Aguas del Tunari, a multi-national water consortium, was given a 40-year contract and the exclusive right to Cochabamba’s water system as well as an annual rate of return amounting to over 15%. Consumer prices skyrocketed and many poor people were at risk of losing access to water. In December 1999, a series of demonstrations over water rights, characterized by widespread police violence and cross-demographic protests, became known as the Cochabamba Water Wars. Communal groups formed wider networks, allowing them to effectively protest the new privatized system and the accompanying high prices through mobilization around the fundamental right to water and life. This brought attention to the fight against globalization and organizations like the World Bank.

Contributed by Travis Batiza
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, U.S.

Further Readings: 
  • Assies, Willem. "David versus Goliath in Cochabamba: Water Rights, Neoliberalism, and the Revival of Social Protest in Bolivia." Latin American Perspectives 30, no. 3 (2003): 14–36.
  • Nickson, Andrew, and Claudia Vargas. "The Limitations of Water Regulation: The Failure of the Cochabamba Concession in Bolivia." Bulletin of Latin American Research 21, no. 1 (2002): 99–120.