Transforming hydrosocial territories and changing languages of water rights legitimation: Irrigation development in Bolivia’s Pucara watershed

Rígel Rocha López*, Paul Hoogendam, Jeroen Vos, Rutgerd Boelens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Comprehending the context and history-based allocation and distribution of water use rights for irrigation is crucial for understanding social and agricultural dynamics in (semi)arid regions. Irrigation water rights are socio-legal constructs that, for their materialization, depend on the legitimacy, authority and powers backing their claims. We show how the recent conceptual notion of “hydrosocial territories” enables examining water rights claims as expressed in diverse and divergent “legitimation languages”. Water rights and their legitimation languages are embedded in site-particular normative dynamics, cultural-political histories and changing socionatural configurations. This article focuses on Bolivia's Pucara watershed to examine the historical shifts in legitimizing water use rights, these claims’ social acceptance, and their materialization in hydraulic infrastructure and access to water. The article analyzes three historical periods in which stakeholders sustain different ways to legitimize and defend their water rights. In the first (1950–1978), acquiring rights was sustained through “hydraulic property” relationships: rights-creation by investing in infrastructure development. In the second (1978–1995), a shift takes place to more territorially-oriented claims over water rights in response to governmental attempts to reorganize hydrosocial territories. In the third period (1995–2017), steered by indigenous communities’ wider political emancipation processes and the municipalization policies, territorial claims over water sources and use rights have become decisive in the struggle over water. We show that, to enhance user-oriented irrigation development, it is necessary to understand besides the positions, interests and power structures, also the multiple languages of water rights legitimation that underlay water control and that trigger either conflict or collaboration.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-213
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019


  • Bolivia
  • Hydrosocial territories
  • Irrigation
  • Languages of water rights legitimation
  • Legitimacy
  • Water rights


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