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Cochabamba Water War, Bolivia


In 1999 the US company Bechtel was granted the concession to manage water services in Cochabamba, Bolivias third largest city. The cost of water tripled and it became necessary to buy a license to access water resources and a licensing system for collecting rainwater was also introduced. After a year, 55 percent of local citizens still did not have access to water. In April 2000, hundreds of thousands marched on the streets of Cochabamba to protest against the Government, and forced it to revoke the Water Privatisation Law. The contract with the multinational company Bechtel was terminated and the water service concession re-advertised. The conflict, known as the Cochabamba Water War, became symbolic of the struggles fought to protect common rights, proving that popular participation could have a major influence on decision making in regard to the management of public services.

There is a long history of peasant protests in this region characterized by a permanent shortage of water resources. In this context, the privatization of the municipal water distribution company, linked to a water transfer called Misicuni project, infuriated the local population in 2000. At the same time, at the national level, regulation of the water supply and sanitation was influenced by World Bank recommendations and the so-called Washington Consensus. The public reaction led to the formation of a Departmental Coordinating Platform for Water and Life, which which grew until the symbolic occupation of the city of Cochabamba was brutally repressed. Then,in April 2000, the Coordinadora submitted the privatizing measures to a popular referendum. The result was 90% favorable to public management. Facing such massive and permanent mobilization, the government finally decided to give up on the privatization, giving the water management to the Coordinadora (together with the considerable debt of the company). Since then, water management in Cochabamba has a public character, and it has emerged as a successful example of social movements against the advance of the water multinationals. However, there remain serious problems of supply in many areas of the city, which have been mitigated through the creation of water committees which govern the use according to community traditions. Oscar Olivera, one important leader, published in 2004 (in English translation) Cochabamba - Water War. Cochabamba 2000 came to be seen as a turning point against corporate neo-liberalism.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Cochabamba Water War, Bolivia
State or province:Cochabamba
Location of conflict:Cochabamba
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific commodities:Water
Industrial waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The increase in the water bills was of 300 percent. The average monthly water bill reached around US$12, while the average monthly wage was around US$60.

percent of local citizens did not have access to water in 1999.

Project area:28400
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:600000
Start of the conflict:1999
Company names or state enterprises:International Water Ltd (IWS) - IWL was controlled by the American multinational company Bechtel and by the Italian company Edison - controlled by AEM di Milano, the Municipal Company of Milan, Italy. Today, the company operates as a subsidiary of Bechtel
EDISON International from Italy
ABENGOA S.A. from Spain
SEMAPA from Bolivia - public utility of the municipality of Cochabamba
Relevant government actors:Ministry of the Interior - Bolivia, Bolivian Army and police, Government of Cochabamba
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank (WB) from United States of America
International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) from United States of America
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:FEDECOR, Associations of Farmers, Students and Workers of Cochabamba, Movimiento Cocalero, Observatory on Debt and Globalization, Committee for the Defence of Water and Life (Cochabamba)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches


Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Deaths
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Strengthening of participation
Project cancelled
The decrease on the water price. End to privatization of urban water services. Water as a human right.
Proposal and development of alternatives:0
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The water prices became as low as before the water privatization.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Law n21060 in 1985

Law 2029

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Las canillas abiertas de Amrica Latina II. La Lucha contra la privatizacin del agua y los desafos de una gestin participativa y sustentable de los recursos hdricos. Grosse, Robert; Santos, Carlos; Taks, Javier; Thimmenl, Stefan. Ed. Zonalibro. 2006

Revista Semillas N28: El agua un bien pblico patrimonio de los pueblos. 2006

Oscar Olivera, Cochabamba water wars, 2004,

La guerra por el agua y por la vida. Ana Esther CeceƱa. 2004

Cochabamba y la nueva conciencia sobre el Agua. Fobomade 2001.

Los campesinos regantes en la guerra del agua de Cochabamba. Fedecor 2002.

Villas de Chilimarca. Un proyecto alternativo de alcantarillado. A Sud 2006

Perfiles de la protesta - Poltica y movimientos sociales en Bolivia. John Crabtree. 2005

Miradas, Voces y Sonidos. Conflictos Ambientales en Bolivia. Gruenberger, Jenny (Edit.). OLCA. 1999

Juicio de responsabilidades a Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada y sus colaboradores. Carovana internazionale in Bolivia. A Sud. 2005

Revista Latinoamerica e tutti i sud del mondo N83-84. 2003

Meta information

Contributor:Lucie Greyl & Joan Martinez Alier
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:444