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Political Ecology and Water Resources Essay


Many people would attest that access to water is an intrinsic human right. The rationale is that majority of the earth’s surface is composed of water. However, over 90% of the water is in the seas and oceans leaving only about 3% of water for human consumption. As such, competition for the resource is on the increase as countries embrace technology in agriculture and production of electricity.

In 2003, the United Nation noted that over 2.4 billion people across the world had no access to clean water and proper sanitation. The international body emphasized on the need to reduce the number tremendously by 2010. Although many governments and organization were of the same opinion, it became apparent that competition for the resources is increasing among communities.

The chronicle is particularly common in South America. In Bolivia, ‘water wars’ are common among the indigenous communities (McCarthy 24). Specifically, a dispute emerged in 1999 in the village of Qolque Khoya. The village faces severe water shortage despite hosting various tribes whose primary occupation is cultivation through irrigation.

Historically, the communities have depended on natural streams and locally made reservoirs to access water for irrigation and domestic use (Walker 382). In addition, the communities depend hugely on local organizations known as Sindicatos to manage the water resources in the entire village.

Following the need for increased farming activities by the indigenous communities, international organizations and NGOs embarked on a plan to build a larger reservoir. Many communities welcomed the idea although it later sparked violent conflicts amongst the indigenous communities. Other conflicts such as Chochahamba water conflict of 2000 have been common across the country (Alurralde 37). This paper seeks to analyze the water wars in Bolivia using various concepts of political ecology.

Description of Political Ecology

Political ecology refers to a sub-discipline of ecological science that analyzes environmental issues in the light of politics, economics and sociological factors. It shifts away from disciplinary dualism that has characterized rationalizations of society-nature relations and seeks to incorporate all factors that result from environmental issues.

From its inception, Perreault says that political ecology aims at uncovering ways that political and economic factors shape the environment (153). Besides, it also explains how ecological factors influence the social, political and economic domains (Robbins 41). As such, political ecology assumes a multidisciplinary approach in analyzing power relations that typify economic and political institutions and their effect on the environment (Cleaver 15).

Social factors and concepts such as gender disparities are also critical aspects of the discipline. Political ecology explains how ecological factors could influence ways that communities interact and how they acquire knowledge on matters pertaining to the environment (Robbins 44). It is important to highlight that the discipline differs from other natural and social scientific disciplines in the sense that it incorporates philosophical concepts when explaining the effects and causes of social change and justice.

Throughout this paper, the concepts that are core to the discipline of political ecology will facilitate the analysis of water wars that have typified communities in the rural areas of Bolivia. Besides, the paper will explore various effects of the competition for the water resource within the country’s indigenous communities.

Water Wars in Bolivia and Political Ecology Analysis

As indicated above, the construction of a major reservoir in Qolque Khoya was not an immediate cause of conflict amongst the indigenous communities. Nonetheless, the increase of water brought about new laws and rules of allocating the resource. The new principles through which the water resource could be allocated to different communities led to disquiet amongst them.

Particularly, Qolque Khoya and Sankayani Bajo made an exclusive contract that was in favor of their respective tribesmen. This agreement did not favor other villages such as Sankayani Alto which in revolt, began to redirect the waters to its direction (Funder et al. 28). Citing the disruptions of water supply to the two villages, they sought the protection from local authorities as violence between the villages became apparent. When Sayankani Alto blocked the water supplies to Qolque Khoya, the poorest in the village suffered the most.

Specifically, sub tribe of Tarugani that is even drier than the rest of Qolque Khoya lacked water. The rationale is that the sub tribe was never involved meaningfully during the negotiations by the Sindicato. Despite attempts to highlight their concerns in communities meetings, Tarugani remained marginalized making the poor to become even poorer than before.

The rationale is that the wealthier sub tribes of Qolque Khoya had immense influence in the proceedings of the community meetings and negotiations. As such, the instance led to the reproduction of inequalities within the society.

From a political ecology perspective, increased water wars reveal various underlying aspects of power relations. The better off communities continued to enjoy the resource due to their influence in political decision-making processes. In fact, the Sindicato was constituted by the well to do households who even incorporated relatives. This in turn results to skewed power relations between where one community lives at the mercy of the bigger and stronger community.

Funder et al explicate that the result is dependency relations and ultimately, inequalities within the Bolivian society (27). Research has shown that these types of relations are not mutually beneficial for all the parties involved since the ‘patrons’ rarely make decisions in favor of the weaker communities.

As such, even when the legitimate authorities seek to maintain a degree of social justice to all tribes, the balance of power is highly skewed towards the communities where the authorities perceive to have higher stakes (Cleaver 16). In this case, the Sindicato will attempt to make political decisions at the expense of weaker communities such as the Tarugani since the Qolque Khoya is wealthy and powerful.

While the weak and poor communities express concerns that the type of power relations within the community was risky, it is clear that they have no other option. In the case, it is apparent that the Tarugani villagers could not oppose the decision of the local authorities for fear of sanctions. Therefore, they have no other option other than supporting the local authorities as their ‘voice’ in the mainstream polity institution.

This is not only a source of marginalization but also a source of political patronization. Greenberg and Thomas articulate that the poor communities whose economy is very dependent on irrigation cannot access enough water implying that cyclical effects and other forms of marginalization will continue to typify the society (3). Funder et al say that water, as resource is important in steering an economy and improve the health of the entire society (33).

To this end, water wars in Bolivia have culminated into a situation of imbalanced power leading to a society that is full of inequalities. While this is true, it is important to consider other factors as gender disparities within the Bolivian societies. The country lags behind in enshrining laws that enhance equality among men and women.

Women remain a sub section of the society that has suffered historical insubordination. With this in mind, women within Tarugani will continue to suffer due to the apparent dependency relations. The rationale is that the gender roles assign women with the responsibility of fetching water for domestic use. This leads to reduction of women in productive activities and denies them a right to access education.

It is important to notice that the power relations that typify communities in Bolivia illustrate ways in which inequalities and disparities are created and reproduced (Rich 7). Considering that lack of equal power and wealth has marginalized Tarugani villagers, the fact that the community feels that they have no other option other than depending on the majority tribe serves to reproduce these inequities.

By following and supporting the discriminative local authorities rather than opposing its actions, Tarugani villagers are legitimizing the authority of the Sindicato even more. The result is structural inequalities that will continue to typify the community (McCarthy 47). Tarugani people would not even consider revolting against the Sindicato since the latter would not hesitate to impose sanction and certainly close the any room for any water projects in the area.

The structural inequalities resulting from the dependency relations lead to the entrenchment of perceptions that the dominated community should continue to suffer under the whims of the larger communities. These dispositions create a pattern of insubordination and domination (Walker 383).

This implies that the members of the dominated community will believe that they are in sufferance because of natural causes instead of attempting to challenge the dominance of the Qolque Khoya and the local authorities. This may lead to allocation of natural resources in even a more discriminative way in future since the perceptions and dispositions will create a legitimate pattern of discrimination.

This analysis facilitates the examination of water wars in Bolivia in a deterministic view. The analysis has highlighted various ways that the wars in not only Qolque Khoya but also other parts of the country lead to structural inequalities due to imbalanced power relations among the communities.

Social and Economic Outcomes

The above analysis provides insights on how environmental issues affect both social and economic spheres of Bolivian society. Apparently, the water wars among the actors bring about the socio-political aspect of power relations. The poor households have no voice in allocation of scarce water resources leading to dependency relations. This is because the better off households wields immense power enough to influence even the policy-making processes of the local authorities (Cleaver 20).

Particularly, the poor households and communities avoid instances of risky conflicts and instead opt to support the status quo. Due to their vulnerability, they fear that any confrontation with the dominant community could trigger even more insubordination. The trend leads to entrenched perceptions, beliefs and attitudes that the patterns of domination are natural.

In addition, the structural injustices and inequalities have also affected the gender relations between men and women. In poor households, the women suffer increased inequalities since Bolivia is a patriarchal society where women’s social roles include finding water for domestic use. As such, unfair allocation of water resources predisposes women to the risk of disengaging in productive and empowering activities.

Economically, the communities at war due to water resources suffer the risk of decreased economic activity. Funder et al assert that the poor communities become under-productive owing to the apparent lack of distribution of equitable resources (32).

Besides, the economic policies that govern the water resources become skewed in the long term as the strong and influential communities influence the policy making process (Greenberg and Thomas 9). This implies that the economic productivity of the country reduces in the end and the poor communities stand to suffer insubordination even in terms of low productivity.


In sum, water is natural resource that occupies majority of our planet’s surface. Despite its abundance, only a mere percentage is disposable to humans for consumption, agriculture and other uses. As such, competition for the resource is typical in many parts of the world. In Bolivia, various communities have continued to fight for fair distribution of the resource.

Political ecology therefore facilitates in explaining the effect of such competition on political, economic and social spheres (Rich 4). After analysis of water wars in Bolivia, it is clear that the competition for water can have various consequences. Particularly, better off communities dominate poor communities leading to structural inequalities that typify Qolque Khoya.

This is because of imbalanced power relations that in turn result to dependency relations. As evident in the above case study, the poor communities suffer socially, economically and politically due to skewed policies that do not favor them.

Works Cited

Alurralde, Juan Carlos. “Crisis in Cochabamba,” Alternatives Journal 32.5(2006): 37-39. Print.

Cleaver, Francis. “Re-inventing Institutions: Bricolage and the Social Embeddedness of Natural Resource Management.” The European Journal of Development Research 14.2 (2006): 11-30. Print.

Funder, Michael et al. “Strategies of the poorest in local water conflict and cooperation-evidence from Vietnam, Bolivia and Zambia,” Water Alternatives 5.1(2012): 20-36. Print.

Greenberg, James and Thomas, Park. “Political Ecology.” Journal of Political Ecology 1.1 (1994): 1-12. Print.

McCarthy, James. “First World political ecology: lessons from the Wise Use movement.” Environment and planning 34.1 (2002): 1281-1302. Print.

Perreault, Thomas. “From the Guerra Del Agua to the Guerra Del Gas: Resource governance, neoliberalism and popular protest in Bolivia,” Antipode 38.1(2006): 150-172. Print.

Rich, Bruce. “Rights to water and privatization.” Environmental Forum 28.1 (2011): 1-13. Print.

Robbins, Paul. Political Ecology: A critical introduction. London: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.

Walker, Peter. “Political ecology: where is the policy?” Progress in Human Geography 30.3 (2006): 382-395. Print.

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IvyPanda. "Political Ecology and Water Resources." December 10, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/political-ecology-and-water-resources/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Political Ecology and Water Resources." December 10, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/political-ecology-and-water-resources/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Political Ecology and Water Resources'. 10 December.

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