The fight for water in Bolivia: nor any drop to drink

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Chris Ney

As thousands of protesters filled the streets of Washington in April 2000, closing the US capital to oppose the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, their peers in Bolivia were demanding the right to drinking water.

Following massive protests against the privatisation of the nations water supply, the Bolivian government had declared martial law. A leader of the Bolivian movement, Oscar Olivera, escaped the repression just in time to join the Washington protests, arriving to a hero's welcome. As he applied for his US visa, he told the international press, I think that when the economy is globalised, it is important to globalise the fight for the people.

The good news to emerge from this skirmish in South Americas poorest nation (and one of the worlds most poverty-stricken) is that the people of Bolivia, with leadership of the likes of Oscar Olivera, won their battle through the power of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.

Wholl run the waterworks?

Fresh water is not just a Bolivian problem, but a global issue that will become increasingly important in the next 100 years. In the age of mercantilism, imperialism depended on control of the waters; the nation with the strongest navy could project its power the farthest. In the age of neoliberal globalisation, imperialism may once again focus on control of water not the oceans this time, but fresh water as a resource for agriculture and human consumption.

According to most experts, the world is running out of water. Although Earths surface is mostly water, supplies of fresh water are a small percentage of the total. Increased human consumption, agriculture and industry, combined with increased pollution from human-made toxins or salinisation, are quickly depleting the planets fresh-water reserves. In the oft-quoted refrain of World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin, The wars of the [21st] century will be over water. We don't really know when or if full-scale water wars may emerge, but the recent struggle in Bolivia may be the shape of things to come.

The subject is beginning to get the attention of international conferences and some mainstream media. In a special section on the global water crisis in the July 2000 Harpers Magazine, author Jacques Leslie painted a disturbing picture of the situation: The worlds supply of freshwater [sic] remains roughly constant, at about 22 percent of all water, and of that almost two-thirds is stored in ice caps and glaciers, inaccessible to humans ... Humans have grown so numerous that the usual response to anticipated water scarcity to increase supply with dams, aqueducts, canals, and wells is beginning to push against an absolute limit.

While there is general agreement that the planet faces an ecological catastrophe, there is little consensus about possible alternatives. At the heart of the matter is the fundamental question, is water a right or a commodity? If it is a right, then an international system must ensure access to enough clean water to sustain communities and the environment. If water is a commodity, then it can be bought and sold like any other, hoarded or squandered by those with enough cash and denied to those too poor to pay. That question was the centre of the Bolivian crisis and it informed every discussion from the halls of government to the corporate offices to the streets of Cochabamba, Bolivias third largest city and the capital of the district of the same name, where the water dispute unfolded.

Extreme privatisation

I met Olivera shortly after his arrival in Washington, where he spoke to a standing- room-only crowd at a forum on globalisation. A few days later we spoke over the phone. Cochabamba is a district in Bolivia with approximately one million residents, he told me. For 50 years there have been serious difficulties with water there because of consumption and agriculture. But living conditions deteriorated severely as a result of privatisation programmes promoted by the World Bank. The World Bank claimed that public services were inefficient. So in Bolivia almost everything has been privatisedthe only thing left is the water and the air. Then the government tried to privatise the water. Although the precise details of Bolivias water privatisation scheme are sketchy, it seems that in September 1999 Bolivia signed a contract with the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, turning over control of the Cochabamba regions water to Aguas del Tunari, a private monopoly dominated by Bechtel. A month later, at the urging of the World Bank, the government passed a law retroactively legalising the contract and centralising control of the water resources. In Cochabamba, Olivera explained, only 50 percent of the city has connections [to the main water lines]. The other 50 percent has [either] their own system or a cistern system that is run by one of several cooperatives. The new law abolished all [the independent systems].

The law also sent water prices skyrocketing to pay for promised improvements in infrastructure. Olivera told me that, as a result of the changes, [water] taxes were increased 30 percent to 40 percent. The privatisation made Bolivias water rates higher than the rates in many US communities. What is worse, added Olivera, The service did not improve despite the increased costs.

An unprecedented coalition

Protests began almost immediately. In a rare union of urban and rural activists, a coalition of workers, campesinos (subsistence farmers), city residents and members of water cooperatives formed a Coordinadora (coordinating committee) to fight the water deal. Olivera, a 45-year-old machinist and head of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, quickly took a leadership role in the new struggle. In January of this year, the coalition staged a four-day, city-wide blockade and strike that forced the government to make some concessions. It agreed to void the contract with Bechtel, but not to lower the price of water. So the Coordinadora [decided] to organise civil disobedience and not pay the fees, said Olivera.

In February, the coalition staged a take-over of Cochabamba. In a festival atmosphere, organisers declared, We, the citizens of the city and countryside, want to speak our minds. Alarmed by the mobilisation of Indians and poor people, the government responded with what Olivera described as brutality: [They] brought in gas, dogs and troops to repress the people. Shortly afterwards, however, the government agreed to review all aspects of the water agreement.

The Coordinara took advantage of the opening. To demonstrate popular opposition to the privatisation, the coalition organised a March referendum. More than 50,000 people participated; 96 percent voted against the privatised water system, the Bechtel contract and the increased tariffs. Infused with energy by the massive public support, the Coordinadora was further buoyed by allegations of corruption between the company and government officials who negotiated the contract. Protesters also discovered the company had not paid for its electricity, telephone service or furniture.

A third protest was scheduled for April; this time the government was better prepared. They detained all of the directors of the Coordinadora. Olivera said. The movement leaders were released after a church group intervened on their behalf, but by then the people of Cochabamba were angry about the increasing repression and about government propaganda alleging that the actions were organised by drug smugglers. Olivera countered, The grandmothers who were blocking my street were not narco-traffickers.

The protests were more successful with Cochabamba's local government than they had been with the national government in La Paz. On 7 April, the governor of Cochabamba reached an accord with the protesters. But, said Olivera, the national government refused to recognise the accord and declared a state of siege. Troops were given orders to detain and to kill.

The hard-line tactics backfired again, and the protests broadened. In the violence that followed the declaration of martial law, many were wounded, and one 17-year-old man, Victor Hugo Daza, was killed when a military sharpshooter fired directly into a crowd. (After police arrested the Bolivian army's Capt Robinson Iriarte de la Fuente for the murder of Victor Hugo Daza, human rights activists working with the School of the Americas Watch discovered that Iriarte de la Fuente had graduated from the US Armys dreaded School of the Americas in 1978.) Between 8 and 14 April 2000, according to the Weekly News Update on the Americas, at least five other people were killed, 74 were wounded and 92 were arrested. The government continued to refuse to negotiate with the Coordinadora, a hard line that proved unsustainable and split the government, with some armed forces regiments refusing to act against the protesters.

Finally, on 16 April, the crisis ended when Aguas del Tunari decided to leave the country and the government terminated the contract. The government also agreed to create a new entity to manage the waterworks, which will include the Coordinadora, the city administration and the workers.

The Bolivian government has begun a public relations campaign to discredit the coalition, but Olivera is confident it will fail because too many Bolivians know what the Coordinara achieved. The people not the leaders said No to privatisation of water because it is a resource we cannot live without, he concluded when we spoke. The people have begun to demand not just water, but democracy; to find their voices and not to accept the dictates of international finance, the IMF or the World Bank.

Meanwhile, back at A16

Despite the protests and the suspension of democracy in Bolivia, the World Bank continued to support privatisation. At the height of the Bolivian crisis and while A16 protesters demonstrated outside the World Bank meeting in Washington World Bank President James Wolfensohn told a Washington press conference that Bolivia needed a proper system of charging, arguing that public services are inevitably wasteful. The comment was in line with World Bank recommendations in a June 1999 report that recommended, No subsidies should be given to ameliorate the increase in water tariffs in Cochabamba. The report went on to argue explicitly that even the very poor should pay more for their water.

Oliveras closing remarks to the Forum on Globalisation brought a standing ovation and articulated one of the best and most inspiring reasons to oppose corporate- dominated globalisation. Minutes after arriving in Washington from Bolivia where his country's military had sought to detain him Olivera told his Washington audience about the nonviolent struggle in his country. He concluded, We had begun to think that the economic model had turned us all into self-centred egotists who care only for ourselves and not about our neighbour. But we have realised that in the deepest places of the hearts of the women and men of Cochabamba reside the values of fraternity, solidarity, dignity and the desire to overcome our fears. It has been a long time in which the people of Bolivia have not been heard thank you for listening.