As I write this, we are facing difficult times in Bolivia and much of South America. Over the past two decades, we have removed bad governments, kicked out corporations and elected “progressive” governments. We also successfully waged the historic “Cochabamba Water War of 2000” that recovered our water from an international consortium. The people from Uruguay won the first battle in the polls introducing the right to water in their constitution and their example has spread all over Latin America. Social movements have mobilized and have changed the political face of this continent.
But the struggles haven’t stopped. Throughout the Americas, discontent is on the rise in the face of governments. We are witnesses, not to a series of isolated uprisings, but to a global movement against the unwarranted ambition of the corporate agenda, and in defense of the commons. Water issues embrace and strengthen other urgent challenges that are happening
now in Bolivia and the rest of the continent. Water is the one issue where everything intersects; it crosses over into political and economic issues in every region and in every country. People’s struggles over water are about having their voices heard, having better living conditions, establishing their rights to basic survival needs, and determining their own political and economic futures. That is what we call direct democracy. In Bolivia, the water struggle has given birth to a political shift. Water has become a symbol of our struggle for political and economic autonomy and for regaining our dignity.
As I was growing up, clean water distribution for human consumption was limited primarily to the wealthier neighborhoods of my country, including in my own city of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest. But even those who did have pipes could not depend on reliable service. My family, as most Bolivians, collected rainwater in large barrels, one of the many means of water access in my country. Even today, many of Cochabamba’s residents aren’t connected to the main system and have built their own water systems to give a solution to their problems.
Currently, these local systems are managed by Water Committees, mostly formed in southern Cochabamba neighborhoods and delivering water to almost 40% of the city’s population. They usually start identifying a water source and pulling out some money, a water well was made and with the full participation of the community, ditches were dug from each home to a central hub. Well water was then piped into this distribution network so that each home had water access. Such community water systems were built over years and, in the process, strengthened the community’s skills at managing this resource democratically. The experience also reinforced the people’s sense of their right to and responsibility for this gift from nature.
The situation in Cochabamba was similar to much of the world at the end of the 20thcentury. By the beginning of 2000, about 900 million people had inadequate access to safe drinking water with about 2.5 billion people living without sanitation and waste disposal facilities. When I was born, there seemed to be plenty of fresh, clean water in the world but just not enough capacity to deliver it to the global population. By 2000, the threat of potable water scarcity everywhere had become a national security issue for the global powers. These emerging global and local water stresses on both the North and the South coincided with a late 20thcentury free-market push for politically friendly governments in developing countries, including Bolivia. Influenced by the free-market economic agendas of the United States and Europe, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came to Bolivia with loans to “assist” our economic development.
The primary characteristic of this “loan program” was a requirement for the privatization of the nation’s industries and natural resources. So the Bolivian government launched a major privatization program that culminated in the privatization of water at the end of 1990’s. As part of its project to improve municipal services, the government actively sought out private investor management for Cochabamba’s water and sewage services. Treating drinking water as a market commodity under private management, so the experts claimed, would improve the water supply system infrastructure and delivery through new capital investment, greater management efficiency, and improved customer service. To attract the foreign participation desired by the conservative government, a national law was passed that declared water to be the property of the state, making it available for licensing to private companies for distribution. Eventually, an international consortium headed by a US corporation, was awarded a 40-year concession for Cochabamba water and sanitation services. The new local water company was called Aguas del Tunari.
Aguas del Tunari immediately raised consumer water rates by an average of 200%, with some residents soon spending in excess of 20% of their household income on water. Just four months after the privatization scheme started in 2000, protests began with demands for the reduction of tariffs and for the modification of the government’s pro-privatization law. The lack of credibility of politicians, business people, and state institutions, and their open commitment to the privatization of water utilities compelled us to form the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (La Coordinadora). The coalition emerged as a spontaneous coordinating body representing farmers, committees, and water cooperatives (both urban and rural) that were not connected to the central water grid, but were affected by the privatization. It also represented people already connected to the public grid, but who came to the conclusion that the rates were not affordable, were exaggerated and abusive.
What began as a popular effort to keep the city’s water out of private hands, turned into a model of political resistance through the expression of the people. La Coordinadora became the voice and coordinator of the water struggle. It organized protest marches, a public referendum, open public hearings and maintained the massive protests and blockades that paralyzed Cochabamba for weeks. The unionized workers, who were a part the Coordinadora, brought invaluable organizing experience that insured our continuity in moments of conflict.
At the start of April 2000, with the government and Bechtel still refusing any permanent rollback in water rates, protest leaders declared what they called “la ultima batalla” (the final battle), demanding the cancellation of the water contract and changes in the national water law. After two days of protests that shut down the city, government leaders agreed to meet with representatives from various social sectors: business people, government representatives, and farmers. In the midst of the meeting, police—under orders from the national government—burst in and arrested the entire Coordinadora leadership. The people of Cochabamba flowed into the streets. Armed police and soldiers were sent in to break up the protests. President Banzer declared a state of martial law, but the number of people in the streets grew even larger and the actions of the government grew more violent, culminating in the shooting death of a 17-year-old boy who was killed by a soldier. The demand expressed by the more than 80,000 people in the streets was not just that Bechtel leave the country, but that the President be removed as well, and that a popular constituent assembly be formed.
Finally, after a week of confrontations, the company realized it could not continue and left. The government cancelled the contract and made changes in the legislation to address the demands of the people. It was the first popular victory in eighteen years of neoliberalism, and it changed history. Since then, there has been a gradual shift in the relationship between government elites and working people. Since then, we have learned that the struggle for water is not over and might not be ever over. Extractive industries, pollution and climate change are again threatening our water sources. The struggle over who controls water is ongoing. What we’re fighting for in Bolivia now is to put together effective, participatory control by the people over the commons as an alternative to private control. We know that continued action in our streets and our communities is essential to social change.