Water fights in a time of scarcity: the Bolivian Carnaval

Bolivia
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Illustration: Sarah John © Sarah John

February is the hottest part of the year in Cochabamba. The sun scorches the earth with such ferocity that you cannot walk barefoot. Fortunately, in Bolivia, February means , and Carnaval means water fights.

Arriving at the youth circus where I work one afternoon, my boss greets me: ‘This is a hold-up. Give me your bags, phones and all other valuables.’ Then the gates burst open and children rush out, screaming their war cries, armed with water guns, buckets, bowls and cans of spray foam. The drenching is as complete as it is merciless. I find a water gun and start to take revenge.

Nobody is safe. At first, I suppose our beloved cook, the bringer of food, will be spared – but before long, an entire bucket of water is upended over her head. I can’t stand by and laugh for long though – there’s a cry of ‘She’s drying out!’ and I’m in for another soaking.

In theory, each town’s Carnaval celebrations last for just one weekend. In practice, this is an entire season of exuberant public high jinks, starting weeks beforehand – as early as a cackling 10-year-old with some water bombs can get away with.

Officially, the Carnaval celebration is an unending parade of costumed traditional dances that continues for many hours, long after sunset: elegant women in iridescent sequinned corsets and ribboned braids perform caporales, while people in crocheted leg warmers of concentric squares stomp out t’inkus, as if dancing through the steps enough times will bind Bolivia’s cultural heritage to the earth itself.

These performances alone do not explain Carnaval’s sense of euphoric festivity, though. Having a dedicated time to kick back in the hot weather and enjoy a long weekend of friendly water fights with strangers is an important part of what makes this time of year special. In the microcosm of Carnaval water fights, social class suddenly disappears: anyone who is game is a fair target, be they a working-class father with his children, a group of twenty-somethings in the back of a pickup truck, or a wealthy tourist. According to the rules of this peculiar season, anyone can open up and interact with anyone else as long as there is a water gun involved.

Playing with water is controversial in a city with such a history of water struggles. In 1999-2000, an attempt to privatize the water system and hike rates was fought by such vehement mass protests that the privatization was abandoned. In recent months, water in Bolivia has been in the news once again as the country faces a severe drought. Beyond the headlines, Cochabamba has struggled to meet its water needs for a long time.

A Cochabamban friend says that when she was a child, water came from a dripping pipe at ground height – there wasn’t enough pressure for a tap. Her time at play was curtailed because she had to wait patiently by the pipe for water containers to fill. That was her family’s source of water for cooking, washing, everything.

Even before the drought was announced in 2016, it was normal for Cochabamba houses to have running water just a few hours per week. Better-off households install large storage tanks to tide them over, but it is still common to turn on the tap in homes, offices and bars to find that nothing comes out.

Many of the poorer parts of town do not even have this: water pipes have not been laid, so they rely on water that is often expensive and dirty, delivered by water trucks.

This prompts some to question whether these water fights send the right message. Now, more than ever, water is a valuable resource, without which there is no food, no sanitation, ultimately no life. Should we be teaching the next generation, who will probably have to live in increasingly punishing weather conditions because of climate change, that water should be thrown around for fun?

At Carnaval are thousands of excited faces, old made young again, young giddy with excitement. I reflect that children deserve to feel cool water on their skin, to splash each other and, from time to time, play with this natural resource. I just hope that, next generation, the water will still be there to play with.n

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist and circus instructor living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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