Skip to main content

After the Water War — Achieving Water Rights Consensus in Bolivia

December 8, 2010

This was the challenge: help broker broad-based consensus on water legislation in Bolivia in the wake of violent social conflict over water rights — and after 32 previous attempts at introducing water legislation had failed. A daunting task, yet IDRC-supported Bolivian researchers took it on and triumphed, helping their country develop a water law with which everyone agreed. 

Why did this attempt succeed when so many others had failed?

“IDRC came along with the right research project with the right partner at exactly the right time,” says Merle Faminow, program leader, Rural Poverty and Environment. “A window briefly opened in which real change was possible, and everything aligned to make that change happen.”

The Context: Bolivia’s Political Crisis

When the research began in 2002, there was an urgent need to achieve consensus on rural water legislation. In 1998, the Bolivian government had enacted new laws that offered private companies incentives to take over public water utilities and granted them rights to water that had been used by indigenous farmers for generations. Two years later, in the Andean city of Cochabamba, the private foreign company that had been awarded the local water utility announced a substantial rate hike. Urban residents united with farmers and took to the streets in angry protest, which quickly spread across the country. Several people died and the country came to a stand still. The destabilized national government soon canceled the contract and promised open, consultative debate on water issues.

Known commonly as the Water War, the Cochabamba-sparked crisis was about more than water privatization. It brought to the forefront simmering discontent over Bolivia's longstanding water laws, which did not ensure equitable access to water for Bolivia's indigenous peoples, who make up 62% of the country’s population.

Bolivia’s indigenous majority has long felt excluded from political power. Two decades of economic hardship (in 1985 Bolivia’s inflation spiked at 24 000%) and market-led reforms have enriched Bolivia's elite but have failed to deliver promised benefits to the poor; 75% of indigenous Bolivians live below the poverty level, compared with the national average of 53%.

In Crisis Is Opportunity

In response to the Water War, the government created a special council, the Consejo Interinstitucional del Agua (CONIAG), charged with drafting a water-management law based on consultation with a broad range of social groups — including those groups that protested the water law in 2000.

For Bolivian water engineer Juan Carlos Alurralde (known as Oso Andino, the Andean Bear), CONIAG offered a unique opportunity to find a “made in Bolivia” approach to water management. At the time, Alurralde was a researcher focusing on water issues within a network of organizations called the Comisión para la Gestión Integral del Agua en Bolivia (CGIAB). He has since consolidated his research program within an NGO called Agua Sustenable, which is a member of CGIAB. Experienced in working with both social groups and the Bolivian government, Alurralde was convinced that dialogue based on solid research could point to a fair and efficient model for water management that everyone could accept. He was asked to organize and moderate a series of consultations that would feed into CONIAG's decision-making process. “Oso and CGIAB made a tremendous effort to have broad-based information-sharing workshops and meetings throughout Bolivia,” says Faminow. “This was an opportunity for everyone to hear what was being proposed, and to give their input. It was an open discussion — nothing was behind closed doors.”

Research Offered Neutral Ground

What was presented at these consultative meetings was a state-of-the-art water simulation model that would allow IDRC-funded CGIAB researchers, led by Juan Carlos Alurralde, to assess the effectiveness of various approaches to allocating water rights. But indigenous, peasant, and social groups had long mistrusted the government and were also inclined to distrust researchers. So these previously marginalized groups were invited into the research: they participated in the research design and helped gather data — for example, by doing surveys — and were given access to research results. As the research progressed, they became more willing to negotiate and compromise because they understood the implications of the research. And government officials, who had tended to dismiss traditional methods of water management as outdated and inefficient, had to concede that the simulation model proved otherwise.

“This was a great example of a sound technical underpinning making social consensus possible,” says Jean Lebel, director, Environment and Natural Resource Management. “Without that, it would have just been a discussion.”

A New Water Law, A New Water Ministry

On October 8, 2004, the Government of Bolivia promulgated la Ley numero 2878, de Promoción y Apoyo al Sector Riego. The law incorporates CGIAB’s research by recognizing traditional water rights and uses and guarantees rights to water for irrigation for indigenous and farming communities. From the far left to the far right, all parties and social groups are in agreement about the law.

In December 2005, Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer who rose to prominence leading protests against the government, was elected president of Bolivia. One of the first actions of his government was to create a water ministry committed to continuing to use scientific expertise and public consultation to create a Bolivian water allocation policy. Agua Sustenable researchers helped design the ministry and one member of the group holds the key post of vice-minister.

Next Steps: Implementing the New Water Law

The success of the water rights project led IDRC to fund a second phase, in which Agua Sustenable is testing, under more stringent and complex conditions, the method for assigning water rights that was developed in the Cochabamba region. Ultimately, this project will help make it possible to apply the new water law across Bolivia.

For staff at IDRC’s Montevideo office, the success of the water rights project has been personally gratifying. “This project is a great example of the contribution IDRC makes,” says Faminow, who holds a PhD in agricultural economics. “For me, IDRC is about fresh ideas, working at the frontiers and trying new things. And always with a really strong commitment to the true interests of people in the South, not just to institutional interests. You see that right through the entire organization, in all of IDRC’s people.”