The Water Is Ours Damn It

New Regional and Local Frictions Over Scarce Water

by and | Oct 29, 2011

Picture of a a glacier-fed reservoir, hidden deep in the mountains, that El Alto residents envision may solve their water needs.

El Alto residents envision that this hidden lake may resolve water scarcity. Photo by Kathryn Hicks

In July 2010, we asked the President of the Federation of Neighborhood Organizations (FEJUVE) in El Alto, Bolivia, how his organization planned to address seasonal water scarcity there. Our concern was aroused when, in 2007, local and international papers began to warn about the possible effects of rapidly retreating glaciers, changing weather patterns, and continued rural-to-urban migration on the reservoirs supplying the two cities of La Paz and El Alto.

As the potential for seasonal water scarcity in both cities has increased over time, so too has the conflict over how to best to manage, protect and distribute these resources. Rubén Mendoza told us, “We have found a new water source, it’s a hugelaguna (lake) and that is where we will be able to obtain water for ourselves, for El Alto.” He further suggested that rather than developing a governing board with representatives from each city to manage water, Alteños would actively search for new sources and sell this water to La Paz to help finance new and more efficient water-related infrastructure. While he was conscious of the need for a meaningful solution to address the historic imbalance in levels of poverty and access to basic services in both cities, he was far less concerned with the fact that the reservoir in question was built and maintained by a rural community, and used for agricultural purposes. His response illustrated the tension between city and country as seen in the recently politicized “indigenous-based” discourse of usos y costumbres (indigenous uses and customs) or communitarian values, often framed in opposition to uneven power relations and as an alternative to development that relies upon large-scale, extractive industries.

While El Alto and Cochabamba have gained international attention for the success of their social movements, our work on water scarcity in El Alto suggests that it would be a mistake either to romanticize these movements or to underestimate the barriers and challenges they face. Here, we will explore some of the local and regional tensions surrounding the issue of new water struggles in El Alto, illustrating the stakes involved in the international debate on global warming.

For two years (2009-2011), we have been conducting collaborative anthropological research on the biological, social, political/economic and environmental effects of water scarcity in El Alto, which relies to a substantial degree on glacial melt during the dry season. Water scarcity is a rather complex issue in this highland region of Bolivia; it is unclear to what degree such water scarcity is a result of global warming and melting glaciers or faulty infrastructure and newly expanded population pressures on fragile water systems.

Adding to this complexity are neoliberal policies introduced in the 1990s, which privatized Bolivia’s municipal water supply and made it into a commodity. The administration of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada sold a 30-year water concession for El Alto and La Paz to the sole bidder, Aguas de Illimani consortium, led by the French Company Lyonnaise des Eaux. The policy was designed as a pro-poor strategy to balance public and private interests for the benefit of all, and was perceived as a successful model for other nations in the Global South (see Nina Laurie and Carlos Crespo, “Deconstructing the Best Case Scenario: Lessons from Water Politics in El Alto, La Paz,” Geoforum, vol. 38, no. 5, September 2007, 842). However, this concession resulted in dramatic increases in cost and left substantial portions of the city without water service. Simultaneously, neoliberal agricultural policies further uprooted rural communities in the highlands leading to ever greater flows of migrants from rural to urban peripheral areas like El Alto, where many new “illegal” squatter communities had to build their own infrastructure, pipelines, and petition the municipal agents (disguised as private entities) to legalize their rights to water. Many communities in this city still lack access to the municipal network. Neighborhoods cobble together their own infrastructure, precluding central planning for preservation of dwindling resources.

In order to understand the new regional and local conflicts resulting from water scarcity, we must first turn briefly toward the historic inequality of these two highland cities, which comprise part of the same metropolis, but can be thought of as radically opposite urban environments. La Paz, founded in 1548, is the seat of legislative and executive power in Bolivia, which historically served as the supply center for the silver producing colonial city of Potosí and the Pacific Ocean harbors. El Alto, on the other hand, was part of the rural periphery that extended alongside this important commercial center, but was comprised mainly of indigenous peasant communities (see Carlos Revilla, “Understanding the Mobilizations of October 2003.” In Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State, edited by Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson, Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press, 2011).

However, in the 20th century, due to both environmental and economic factors, El Alto began to urbanize at a very rapid rate, becoming an urban metropolis in its own right. Alteños initially created their own neighborhood organizations (called neighborhood boards)—which were essentially community organizations petitioning for and legalizing land tenure, accessing critical services, and building infrastructure—at a local level. These neighborhood boards still remain critical to accessing basic infrastructure and come together into a regional federation called FEJUVE, the Federation of Neighborhood Boards of El Alto (Federación de Juntas Vecinales) which represent the collective interests of disparate neighborhoods comprising this municipality. The FEJUVE, more recently, has also become the engine of radical protest and change, as its people took to the streets in the 2000s to reclaim resources, both water and gas, from transnational corporations.

On top of uneven access and distribution of water due to neoliberal and post-neoliberal policies, radical shifts in temperature have led to melting glaciers, important buffers of water supply during the dry season. Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist living in Bolivia and studying glacier melt, commented, “It is easier to measure climate change in rural areas because of the physical effects of drought, increases in pests, and difficulties of production, however, it is nearly impossible to measure climate change in urban El Alto because of so many other factors that interact with climate change” (interview, August 2, 2010). Residents perceive climate change in the form of a stronger sun, hotter days, erratic weather patterns, and a measurable lack of water in their wells. As one resident in El Alto remarked, “We know that climate change is happening because it’s getting hotter and hotter. In the past, we would put a shirt out to dry and it would take days … now it only takes hours” (interview, July 19, 2010).

While community residents in some of these peripheral neighborhoods seemed at a loss for how to organize around issues of climate change and water scarcity, the regional leaders of the FEJUVE had a plan for the city of El Alto. The FEJUVE initially supported the creation of EPSAS (the new state-based water company that was created as a temporary solution post-privatization); now, however, they are promoting the development of an independent and autonomous water company built upon Aymara principles of social justice, reciprocity and equality. While FEJUVE-El Alto calls for a water company independent from La Paz, municipal agents in La Paz are pushing for a more centralized plan called “Agua Para Todos,” which would involve a single water company based in El Alto with representatives from national, regional, and municipal governments, and neighborhood organizations, making decisions about larger-scale infrastructure. Funding would come from a combination of user fees, foreign aid, investment and federal funds. FEJUVE-El Alto remains suspicious of La Paz’s proposal for a centralized water company: many of these suspicions were couched in the language and discourse of historic inequality, deep racism, and failure of La Paz officials to deliver on promised services/infrastructure. One representative noted, “We are talking about [an extension of the neoliberal project], a business of and for water…we should continue to observe this problem. To us, [their plan], appears laughable” (El Alteño, February 27, 2010). While both La Paz and El Alto might rely upon the same water resources of glaciers located high above the cities, they have radically different and conflicting visions for how to address the problem. Further, neither plan pays more than lip service to global warming and the potential for increased regional conflict with worsening water scarcity.

Returning to our initial discussion with the FEJUVE leader, in an effort to see for ourselves this “hidden fuente de agua,” we traveled with a team of local activists to a glacier-fed reservoir, hidden deep in the mountains. In an experience eerily reminiscent of the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, where Bond’s mission is to save what the viewer thinks is oil, we traveled for several hours up a narrow and windy dirt road path from the main highway into the mountain range. We passed brown and green mountain ranges and pastures, rolling hills filled with moss and patches of hay, small-scale farming communities herding animals and tending to crops. When we finally reached our destination, we were shocked by the expanse of water stretching in length as far as the eye could see; this crystal clear blue water appeared endless. People immediately started taking pictures and videos of the water supply. One FEJUVE member joked, “Everyone is so worried about climate change and water scarcity […] but this will provide enough for La Paz and El Alto for the next 100 years.” Another remarked, “this water source belongs to local comuneros and they do not want to give up their rights to this laguna. But the truth is that now it will belong to El Alto.” They continued to joke in the van about what the water company would be named and how they will build sufficient pipelines from here down to the city of El Alto, and about financing this project through international donors like European Union or private capital from Japan.

This daily practice of organizing in a moment of scarcity can reproduce broadbased inequalities at a regional or local level: between regions, urban and rural residents, indigenous/mestizo, and those who hold governmental power versus local agricultural laborers or comuneros. Despite organizers’ public discourse about the use of Aymara values to promote a more redistributive and equitable water system, they rely upon similar processes of accumulation by dispossession—like rerouting natural flows to city centers, disrupting and displacing whole communities.

These local contradictions mirror the national and international political scene. President Evo Morales, might declare to a large and enthusiastic crowd of global environmental activists, “We have two paths: either Pachamama or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies.” (Evo Morales, Democracy Now, April 20, 2010) However, his rhetoric and public proclamations of revamping the entire system according to an indigenous-based form of sustainable development, as Pablo Regalsky (Andean Center for Communication and Development or CENDA) notes, has not necessarily held up in practice as “foreign capital still plays a decisive role in Bolivia’s development policies.” (See Bill Weinberg, “New Water Wars in Bolivia: Climate Change and Indigenous Struggle,” NACLA vol. 43, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 2010, 23.) While Morales might have the best of intentions, he has been unable to halt the influence and power of transnational corporations. This economic dependency on large-scale extraction of mining resources and hydrocarbons will only continue to speed up climate change, destroy the environment, reroute water supplies and eventually displace native communities, all in the interest of private capital. The disjunction between Alteños’ discourses of reciprocity and redistribution and their actions of usurpation, then, represents a “world in a grain of sand,” as Mendoza and his team might enact the same kinds of destructive practices and reproduce unequal power relations. In this context, the rhetoric (whether at a global or local level) of “preserving Pachamama” according to usos y costumbres might hold merely cultural and symbolic value in a moment of expansive capitalism and resource-based extraction.

The title of this article is taken from a popular protest slogan, ¡El agua es nuestra, carajo! (the water is ours, damn it!) from the Cochabamba Water Wars where thousands of people filled the main plaza in April 2000 in resistance to the privatization of their municipal water supply.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1

Nicole Fabricant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University. She is co-editor of a book (with Bret Gustafson, Washington U) entitled Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State (SAR Press, 2011) and she is currently completing revisions on a manuscript about the Landless Peasant Movement (MST) Bolivia and new forms of agrarian citizenship in the lowland region (UNC Press, forthcoming).

Kathryn Hicks is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. She has written extensively in peer-reviewed journals on the importance of social support networks in accessing critical medical services in impoverished communities of El Alto, Bolivia and has recently launched a new project on environmental racism in the production of health disparities in southwest Memphis.

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