Bolivia: The water war to resist privatisation of water in Cochabamba (#157)

In Bolivia, shifts towards the privatisation of water supply and sewage services caused strong dissatisfaction, resulting in the eruption of social conflict. Because of the severe dissatisfaction, action was taken to cancel the previous agreements and instead launch a forum where government representatives, social organizations, the private sector and municipalities participate to formulate of a new policy. This case illustrates the crucial importance of rooting policies with the public.


The international consortium “Aguas del Tunari” was granted a concession to supply drinking water and sewerage services to the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia in September 1999. One month later, the Act No. 2029 on the regulation of the water and sanitation sector was passed, containing a set of rules to legitimize such contracts with a strong bias towards privatization. In addition, rules that aimed to regulate the use and exploitation of water resources were adopted.

Both events caused reactions and led to mass mobilization of the population. In urban areas, the protests were sparked by the perceived excessive increases in water tariffs. In rural communities, there was widespread concern about the effects of the new law on traditional rights and access to water for irrigation and domestic uses.

Social conflict erupted in February and April 2000, with several days of intense clashes between so called “guerreros del agua” (water warriors) and the police. These clashes culminated in the declaration of a national state of siege. 

Social discontent was so great that the only possible solution was the cancellation of the Contract that had been agreed with the Aguas del Tunari and the modification of more than 30 articles of the Act No. 2029.

A process of wider grassroots participation was launched. The Consejo Interinstitucional del Agua - CONIAG (Inter-institutional Water Council) has been created, as a forum where government representatives, social organizations, the private sector, academic institutions and municipalities participate with the mission of reaching a consensus in the formulation of a new policy and water legislation for Bolivia.

Lessons learned

  • The difficulties encountered in the implementation of legislation that does not take into account pre-existent rights (in the case of Bolivia peasant and indigenous rights).
  • It is not possible to regulate the use and exploitation of water with sector related legislation only; it needs to integrate all the water uses. 
  • Privatization is not necessarily limited to corporate companies. Another option involves other organized bodies such as water committees that typically function under the civil law but with different mechanisms of social control and participation. 
  • The full cost recovery principle should be applied cautiously in poor communities (countries) where public investment is still needed. 
  • Regulations need to be made efficient as the first step in any privatization. It is necessary to create mechanisms of social control that allow for transparency, and are therefore less vulnerable to corruption in the regulation of basic services.
  • It is evident that social participation, public access to information, and transparency in the administration of services and resources are fundamental aspects of good governance.

Importance of the case for IWRM

This case highlights the importance of social and community participation in the development of regulations, management rules, and institutions in relation to the water resources management and the provision of water and sanitation services, and what can go wrong when these processes are absent or flawed.

Possibly, the conflict could have been avoided if the reform process had involved strong participation, dialogue and agreement between all the parties involved.

On the other hand, the case illustrates how a combination of negotiation andsocial mobilization around positive counter-proposals can lead to importantchanges in politics and legislation at national level.