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Unit 4: The Water Wars of Cochabamba, Bolivia

Ruth Hoff, Wittenberg University. Authored and compiled new case study material based on Unit 4 of Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources module by Adriana Perez, Jill S. Schneiderman, Meg Stewart, and Joshua Villalobos
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These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


In this unit, students analyze climatic data to define a rainshadow, and then explore the human impacts of water impoundment in an arid region.

Science and Engineering Practices

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships. MS-P4.2:

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and/or logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations). HS-P7.6:

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument or counter-arguments based on data and evidence. HS-P7.4:

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Compare and evaluate competing arguments or design solutions in light of currently accepted explanations, new evidence, limitations (e.g., trade-offs), constraints, and ethical issues HS-P7.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Systems and System Models: Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. MS-C4.1:

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Systems and System Models: Systems can be designed to do specific tasks. HS-C4.1:

Systems and System Models: Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales. HS-C4.3:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes: The complex patterns of the changes and the movement of water in the atmosphere, determined by winds, landforms, and ocean temperatures and currents, are major determinants of local weather patterns. MS-ESS2.C2:

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise. MS-ESS3.C2:

The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes: The abundance of liquid water on Earth’s surface and its unique combination of physical and chemical properties are central to the planet’s dynamics. These properties include water’s exceptional capacity to absorb, store, and release large amounts of energy, transmit sunlight, expand upon freezing, dissolve and transport materials, and lower the viscosities and melting points of rocks. HS-ESS2.C1:

Natural Resources: All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. HS-ESS3.A2:

Global Climate Change: Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. HS-ESS3.D1:

Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems: Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities HS-ETS1.A2:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios. HS-ESS3-2:

Earth and Human Activity: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1:

This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: May 23, 2016


In this unit, students explore water privatization and freshwater access issues within the geophysical and cultural context of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Students identify topographical features that create rain shadows and their relationship to the water cycle. As they discuss several alternative models for supplying water to the residents of Cochabamba, they link concepts of environmental justice to the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000.

Learning Goals

Unit 4 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to examples of water scarcity and access in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and proposing potential solutions to inequitable access to clean water based on principles of the hydrologic cycle. The specific learning objectives for this unit align with the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages as follows:

  • Communication:
    • Interpersonal Communication: Spanish language learners interact and negotiate meaning in spoken conversations to share information, reactions, and opinions about the potential trade-offs of various models for supplying water to a community.
    • Interpretive Communication: Spanish language learners understand, interpret, and analyze what is heard, read, or viewed regarding rain shadows and their relationship to the water cycle.
  • Cultures:
    • Relating Cultural Practices to Perspectives: Spanish language learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the practices and perspectives of Cochabamba communities as they relate to water resources.
  • Connections:

    • Making Connections: Spanish language learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using Spanish to develop critical thinking. As part of this learners will be able to:

      • Use the hydrologic cycle to explain why some populations lack access to a reasonable supply of fresh water.
      • Identify factors that contributed to the Water Wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000.
    • Acquiring Information and Diverse Perspectives: Spanish language learners access and evaluate information from an interview in Spanish with Oscar Olivera, an important leader in the Cochabamba water wars.

Context for Use

This unit may be used for one day of instruction in an intermediate-level Spanish class. The plan is for a 50-minute class but it can be modified to fit various schedules. Although the instructions below include both Spanish and English, the lesson is designed to be conducted entirely in Spanish. The unit communicates the critical need for access to freshwater by people and the tradeoffs of various models of water supply within a community. It helps students comprehend water quality access issues within the political, economic, and cultural context of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Description and Teaching Materials

Unit 4 files:


Prior to class, email or make available the kmz file for Cochabamba, Bolivia (KMZ File 7kB Jun13 14) and distribute a hard copy of the Cochabamba Google Earth activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.7MB Nov24 14) that corresponds to the kmz file. Each student downloads the Google Earth kmz file for Cochabamba, Bolivia. The file will load in the Temporary Files section of Google Earth. The kmz file consists of geolocated placemarks with photographs, text, and in one case, a short video. Each student should take notes and write down answers to the questions on the corresponding activity sheet. For advanced classes, students can do this for every placemark. An alternative is to assign the first three placemarks to all students and to distribute the last three placemarks among three different groups so each student completes a total of four placemarks. It is important to let students know that these notes and answers are vital for the in-class discussion on this topic.

Note: If students have difficulty accessing any part of the Google Earth assignment, the instructor's file of Text, images, and links for Cochabamba Google Earth activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 3.7MB May18 16) provides access to the content, videos, and images.


Exploration Activity (5 min):

To get students thinking about water scarcity and access issues, ask students for a show of hands of how many of them know where their water comes from. Water use statistics for the United States are available from the USGS Water Science School and you may want to have this information written down in preparation for class. Ask students to write answers in Spanish to the following questions:

  1. Do you know the source of water for your home community? If so, what is that source? ¿Sabes de dónde viene el agua de tu comunidad? Si lo sabes, ¿cuál es la fuente de esa agua?
  2. What proportion of Americans get their drinking water from the subsurface realm (e.g. wells)? From surface water sources (e.g. rivers)? ¿Qué proporción de norteamericanos recibe su agua potable de aguas subterráneas -- por ejemplo de acuíferos o pozos? ¿y qué proporción recibe su agua de aguas superficiales -- por ejemplo de ríos o lagos?
  3. How do you know that your water is safe to drink? ¿Cómo sabes que el agua de tu comunidad es segura para beber?
  4. Describe a situation in which you did not have access to freshwater. How did the actions of others affect your access? (Write these on the board) Describe una situación en que no tenías acceso al agua dulce. ¿Cómo afectó tu acceso la acción de otros?

Solicit answers to these questions from students and make notes on the board that track their responses. To end the activity, you can summarize the student responses to the above discussion on how readily they have access to freshwater.

Rain shadows and their connection to the water cycle (10 min):

Ask students to take out their notes from the pre-class activity.

Show the slides Rain shadow in Cochabamba, Bolivia (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.4MB May18 16) and ask students to engage in a think-pair-share activity to answer the questions on the slides. The images correspond to information they learned from their homework assignment and offer a way to clarify the material and answer any questions students may have.
At the end, ask students what impact the rain shadow effect might have on the accessibility of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Water distribution — Jigsaw Activity (25 min):

Divide students into three different groups. For larger classes it may be advantageous to have subgroups which discuss the same theme to allow everyone to participate. Assign each group one of the following three alternatives for distributing water in Cochabamba, as presented in the homework assignment:
  1. Bechtel (water privatization),
  2. SEMAPA (municipal supply), or
  3. Asica-Sur (independent local cooperatives).
Each group should first identify and define its water distribution model. Next, using their notes from the homework assignment, students should prepare a list of advantages and disadvantages for this model within the context of Cochabamba's economic and social circumstances. If there are advantages and disadvantages for particular segments of the population, this should be noted as well. Finally, ask students to discuss how their water distribution model might impact the local water cycle, if at all.
Three new groups should then be formed with at least one representative from each water distribution model. Assign roles so that each group represents the interests of one of the following: women, indigenous communities, and farmers. Have students share the advantages and disadvantages for each water supply model and then discuss which option they would choose if they were representing the interests of their assigned roles.
Ask each group to share with the class which option they chose and why.

Teaching Notes and Tips

A key component of this unit is the educational use of Google Earth. Students should have a prior introduction to Google Earth via an in-class demonstration or homework assignment. You can also send them to this walk-though tutorial on how to use Google Earth.

For an excellent continuation of this lesson during subsequent classes, students can watch and then discuss the film También la lluvia (see References and Resources below for a link to pedagogical materials for this film).


Assessment (10 min)

  • Distribute a 3 X 5 notecard. On one side ask students to draw from memory a diagram of a rain shadow with a brief explanation in Spanish of how it works. Dibuja un diagrama de una sombra de lluvia y explica cómo funciona.
  • On the other side of the notecard, ask students to identify three factors that caused the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000. Identifica tres factores que causaron las guerras del agua en Cochabamba en el año 2000.
  • Assessment rubric for Unit 4 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 160kB Apr30 16)

Note that the instructor may also collect the pre-class activity and/or evaluate participation in the jigsaw activity to assess other learning goals stated for this unit.

References and Resources

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »