The Cochabamba Water Wars

By: Tanner Verstegen
Cochabamba Context
            The quantity of water on Earth is second to none; it is the most common resource on the planet.  Professor Simmon says, “It is [water] the veins of Mother Earth.”  With such a high degree of need and supply, the question arises as to who will control it or is the quality up to par. In some areas, a sense of community is gained around water.  The construction of wells, or aqueducts pave the way to communities coming together to build and regulate their water and through the process become tightly knit.  However, in larger urban areas a globalization mantra for water rights is necessary. Before answering these questions the supplier or supply of water needs to be addressed. It can range from a large corporation (similar to an oil company) to full governmental control (similar to city streets).
            Cochabamba lies in a country (Bolivia) with extreme variations in weather and climate.  Much of the disparity in climate is due to an elevation discrepancy from the Andes mountain range across the region. Bolivia is fully enclosed in tropical latitudes, yet its mountainous regions create a climate of mid-latitude characteristics.  Since temperature decreases with height, the Andes in Bolivia provide “tropical glaciers” and are high enough to maintain a persistent snowpack all year long, providing a potential supply of water (2). 
Bolivia’s mountain ranges create vast variations in average precipitation as well. For example, the northern, low lying areas of Bolivia offer up a wet and tropical climate with plentiful access to water. While the southern, higher elevation areas see a dry and cool climate.  Central areas of Bolivia are subject to both a wet, tropical climate and a hot/dry one, depending on the time of year.  The Andes have such a strong grip on the country’s climate and consequently the water supply. The range of water from these mountains and valleys is of high variance and hard to manage. Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) is an example of a significant water resource, along with scattered aquifers in the region (3). The range of topography makes it difficult to develop an infrastructure of water supply for Cochabamba. Evaporating ice caps could furthermore threaten the integrity of the already limited potable water supply in the coming decades as a warming climate continues. The dynamic climate and glacier characteristics will play a substantial role in the water supply.
The ability to provide potable water is a challenge, but certainly possible with the access to water that Bolivia has. Ever since the Operation Evaluation Department invested and completed the Major Cities Water and Sewerage Rehabilitation project, urban areas in Bolivia have seen an improvement in their water (4). However, due to geography and numerous shortcomings/failures (and a lack of funding to fix leaky pipes and/or corruption where areas lose near 55% of their water, according to Professor Simmon1) in the rehabilitation efforts, the city of Cochabamba is subpar in terms of water. The access to water is evident in the country, but the lack of solid infrastructure is still a significant problem.
Cochabamba Water Proposals
            Solutions to the water problems in Cochabamba stem from the basic perspective of whom, if anyone is entitled to water. One plausible solution is to view water as a human right. With proper funding the entitlement to water is effective, in that everyone has equal access and the ability to use it without worrying about the cost for their family. On the down side, having free reign to endless water after paying an upfront fee will undoubtedly lead to waste, according to the World Bank President James Wolfsohn, subsidies on water lead to waste (PBS, 5).  
            An economics point of view might argue privatization of water works to seek water as a commodity and let market ideals work out. It limits waste and allows competition between private water companies. The major downside is that without governmental regulation, the water market may become volatile with droughts or a wet season. For example, a sudden increase in demand could force water prices to become far too high for much of the population, especially if this system is still imposed in 2050, where water supply may be significantly different due to climate change. In this scenario private companies will continue to prosper as they are immune to the downside of water supply changes. The market will set the price and water companies will earn a profit. Bolivians may find themselves in deeper trouble then where they started, in terms of the ability to afford potable access to water.  And according to Professor Simmon, citizens would rather take to the streets and protest such a rate hike than pay out of pocket. Letting the market control Cochabamba’s future of potable water is far too risky and its consequences are yet to be determined.
The creation of a trust is the clear way to combat the battle to distribute clean and plentiful water. In this case the water is owned by the Cochabamba citizens, yet is entrusted in the government as well as its institutions for management. It proves to be a middle ground between full government facilitation and water as a basic right. The local control of water without an umbrella of authority has caused corruption in the past, but with the state watching over, the situation will be far better. The same can be said for when the government had control of a water supply, the Cochabamba citizens claimed corruption solely led to a water increase of ten percent in the 1990s (PBS). By finding the middle ground, the problem of corruption and poor management can be solved.
Cochabamba Stakeholder Interviews and Case Synthesis
            The methods to which water is handled in a complex, yet struggling economy is wide ranging. Stakeholders in the late 1990s had a seemingly well sought after plan to distribute water in Bolivia. However, not all plans work in favor of everyone, hindsight is certainly 20/20 (Assistante, 2014).  She also stated that strength in the privatization of water was that citizens would be paying for their water. The simple supply and demand model applied in this case. Turning water into a commodity and not a human right gives citizens a reason to conserve this resource, as not to waste a limited resource. Assistante insists this resource is diminishing and to privatize/charge for water would help to control the supply, this was the mantra at the time. Ricardo Perez argues that if a consumer is filling up water from their tap they should expect to pay for it, the water does not reach them for free and includes numerous hidden costs, who else to pick up the cost than the consumer. If private companies are helping the water situation and building a better infrastructure, they deserve to be making a few dollars doing it. The profit isn’t wasted (relative to the townships), but rather provides jobs as a positive side effect (Perez, 2014).

            The effects of climate change on a water supply are certainly complex, yet trends and local knowledge can be the key to solving such a problem. According to Achiyaku, glaciers are melting fast and changing the water supply for the worse, without water life is surely not possible. By 2050, who knows what the glacier distribution will look like. Depending on the success of new aquifers, the water situation in Bolivia could be worse than it is now. Adaption and innovation will be the answer to the integrity of the water infrastructure by 2050.