Cochabamba: The First Water War of the 21st Century

Anselmo Cassiano Dec 11, 2018
Visit Website

Water is a vital element of human life, and is a limited resource. Today, only 3% of the available water of the earth is used for human consumption. 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies due to complications from not having clean water. Half of the beds in hospitals are in use due to illness related to not having access to clean water. 

Water could be considered the blue gold of the 21st century.



In 1997, the World Bank forced the Bolivian government to privatize its water system in the city of Cochabamba as a condition for a loan package. Cochabamba is Bolivia’s third most important city, with a population of 600,000 people. After two years, in 1999, in a secret ballot in the Fall, the Bolivian government approved Law 2029 that gave the monopoly of water resources to the international consortium Aguas del Tunari, led by the American company Bechtel, the Spanish Abengoa, and four Bolivian companies as shareholders. The law was so abusive that in its Article 76, it did not allow the people of Cochabamba to collect water of cisterns or water from rain without a license.

As soon as the law came into force the first measure in January 2000 was to increase the value of the water tariff, which resulted in many protests on the part of the Bolivian people. Oscar Oliviera, one of the leaders in this Water War of Cochabamba, appears with prominence through the NGO Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida. This coalition coordinated and organized protests against the Bolivian government and also against Bechtel. Workers, students, farmers, and all the segments of the populations went on strikes and began to block major roadways. On February 5th, 2000, the entire city was blockaded and for the first time the Bolivian government decided to listen to the population and freeze rate hikes. 

The latest wave of protest-related violence culminates in a historic victory for the residents of Cochabamba. After some days in hiding, Oscar Olivera signed an agreement with the Bolivian government that guarantees the withdrawal of Aguas del Tunari, grants control of Cochabamba's water to La Coordinadora (the NGO grassroots coalition led by Olivera), assures the release of detained protesters, and promises the repeal of water privatization legislation. Legislation that would have charged peasants for water drawn from local wells is also removed. It was a historical day, April 10th, 2000, for the Bolivian people and the world. Water is not a privilege; it is a right.

Eighteen months later, November 2001: Aguas del Tunari and Bechtel seek restitution from Bolivia and applied to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arbitration body created by the World Bank in 1966. Aguas del Tunari alleges that the Bolivian government violated a bilateral trade agreement when it revoked the consortium's Cochabamba water contract. The company sought $25 million in damages for breach of an exclusive 40-year multimillion dollar contract to bring drinking water and sanitation services to Cochabamba. For four years afterward, Bechtel and Abengoa found their companies and corporate leaders dogged by protests, damaging press, and public demands from five continents, enough such that they dropped the case.

After the Cochabamba’s war over 15 years, 235 cities in 37 countries have brought water services back under public control benefiting 100 million people worldwide.

In the first few days of the MBA, a professor mentioned this phrase that accompanies me over the years: "Communication is not what you say but what others understand."

The Harvard History Design Studio is a creative space that motivates us to look for new ways to tell stories by exploring multimedia platforms on and off line. Coordinators of the Laboratory, Robin and Amy have two fantastic ingredients that I believe is key to success: the technique and enthusiasm.

I am here to explore augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), timelines, audio maps, videos, and texts to make people understand how important a subject as the Cochabamba Water War was as a worldwide landmark for the world to open their eyes to something that is not a privilege but a right: access a potable water.

What is our role as a water diplomat? With technical and scientific knowledge and negotiation skills, we need to understand that the game is already being played over water, and I want to motivate everyone to remember that audacity accompanies success.  We need to be strong advocates for guaranteeing the right to water for people worldwide.  We need to be resilient, and be prepared for tough negotiations, and realize that the negotiations really start when you receive the first ‘no’ to your requests.  Even when you hear the first ‘no’ in a negotiation, you cannot give up.  I hope you have the vision to change the world, and make it a better place for the next generation.

This case was presented the first time May 10th 2018 @ MIT Water Diplomacy: Instructors Yasmin Zaerpoor and Jungwoo Chun (PhD candidates)

Visit Website

About the Authors

Anselmo Cassiano

Anselmo Cassiano holds an MBA in corporate communication FIA/USP-Brazil.  He is a specialist in negotiation, mediation, crisis emergency and business continuity at MIT.  He has studied conflict management/ombudsman at Princeton University and strategy, conflict and cooperation with the Harvard Economics Department.  Previously, he served as 1st Lieutenant while working in the UN Peacekeepers Force in East Timor. He is representing MIT Water Club in the most important Water Award, Stockholm Water Prize.

Anselmo also loves sports. He is currently captain of the MIT Shotokan Karate and the Triathlon Teams.  He volunteers with the MIT co-ed sailing and tennis programs. Finally, as a Brazilian, Anselmo is crazy about soccer.