During the Water War in 2000, residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, famously mobilized against water privatization and gained back public control of the city’s water utility. Nearly two decades later, the water movement’s vision of democratic water provision under the participatory management of ‘social control’ remains largely unfulfilled. This paper points to the difficulties in rebuilding a strong public water service in Cochabamba, focusing on the different—and often incompatible—understandings and interpretations of public participation. Addressing the concept’s malleability to a spectrum of ideologies, this paper builds a typology of different kinds of participation according to their intentionality, outcomes, tools, and practices. Applying this framework to the water politics in Bolivia serves to untangle competing perspectives of participation, uncover whose interests are served, and which groups are included or excluded from access to water and decision-making. This analysis reveals how transformative participation has failed to take hold within the municipal service provider in Cochabamba.
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