Water Wars: How One City’s Fight Against Bechtel Ignited a Movement Battling Water Privatization

High up in the Andean valley, 8,000 feet above sea level, lies Cochabamba, Bolivia. The name, Khocha Pampa, from the indigenous Quechua, means swampy plain. Once a lush and verdant land, its waters have come under pressure from a variety of sources. The first was privatization.

This week the Feria del Agua, a water festival and fair, marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that fought off privatization. Events to celebrate kicked off on Thursday, April 15 with a 4,000-person parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Over the next three days at the Fabriles, local groups, area residents and attendees from countries world-wide, ranging from Honduras to Italy, from Uruguay to Spain, shared information about how they self-organize. The Fabriles is an organizing space for workers and was a pivotal space for organizing meetings during the water wars in 2000.

The Water Wars

In 1995, World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin predicted, “Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.”

And the World Bank would know. In 1997, it refused to renew $600 million dollars worth of foreign debt relief, unless Bolivia privatized its water services. So the Bolivian government, then under the leadership of Hugo Banzer (who was dictator of Bolivia from 1971 to 1978), put the municipal agency Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA), which had previously controlled water, up for auction.

On September 3, 1999, in a closed-door meeting, the government signed a lucrative contract with Aguas de Tunari, a multinational consortium of companies and a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation. Aguas de Tunari was the sole bidder, won the contract and was henceforth to provide water to all the residents of Cochabamba.

Subsequently, on October 29, 1999, the government passed law 2029 (Drinking Water and Sanitation Law) to regulate drinking water and sewage disposal. Law 2029 stated that water not only in Cochabamba but also in the surrounding agricultural areas would be provided, that is, privatized, by Aguas del Tunari. Irrigation waters had never been under the auspices of the municipal agency SEMAPA and thus should have been exempt. Peasants relied on free access to them in order to survive. So this privatization outraged many peasants living in the area surrounding Cochabamba.

Moreover, when Bechtel took over the water services, they increased rates by 35 percent to 50 percent. Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America. Families earning on average $100 per month were suddenly faced with $20 per month water bills. The impact on the population was immediate and drastic.

As a result of their dire situation because of these numerous changes, individuals formed La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (The Coalition Defense of Water and Life). The Coordinadora included peasant farmers, whose subsistence depended on access to free water, environmentalists and factory workers, led by Oscar Olivera, a rank-and-file delegate, union organizer and leader.

Protests erupted immediately the week after the rate hikes, with a broad spectrum of people participating: factory workers, peasants, housewives, street vendors, students, kids. Between January and April, 2000, the people shut the city on three separate occasions with general strikes and road blocks.

On March 22, 2000, the Coordinadaro held an unofficial referendum in which 96 percent of 55,000 voters demanded that the government end the contract with Aguas del Tunari. Government officials responded that there is nothing to negotiate.

In April, demonstrators took over the central plaza in Cochabamba.

The next day, on April 6, 2000, when leaders of the Coordinadora went to meet with the governor at his office, they were arrested. Meanwhile, protests had spread to other cities, such as La Paz and Potosí.

On April 8, 2000, President Banzer declared a state of siege, that is, a suspension of constitutional rights. In power were President Banzer, Governor Walter Cespedes and Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa. (All three trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.) Curfews were enforced, freedom of the press was blocked, gatherings of more than four persons were banned and warrantless searches were conducted.

Eventually, on April 10, Olivera and government officials signed a contract annulling the contract with Aguas del Tunari. Control of water was turned over to La Coordinadora, which demanded that law 2029 be repealed. The state of siege was ended on April 13, 2000.

Aguas del Tunari brought the matter to the International Centre for Settlement of Disputes (ICSID), the arbitration body of the World Bank, accusing the Bolivian government of breach of contract, but eventually settled with the Bolivian government out of court and agreed not to seek monetary compensation for the annulled contract.

Hard Work Still Remains

To be sure the water wars were enormously successful. They brought together communities across previously existing geographic or class boundaries. Rural campesinos worked together with urban factory workers to protest the privatization of irrigation waters; and uprisings took place all over the country.

The water wars thwarted attempts to privatize water in Bolivia, called attention to attempts to privatize water elsewhere and led to an increasingly widespread discourse on water as a basic right, part of the commons and thus not to be privatized. As Vandana Shiva puts it in the introduction to Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia, “[…] reclaiming the commons is the political, economic and ecological agenda for our times.”

Shiva also mentions the world-wide impact of Cochabamba, discussing how it was inspirational for work in India against Suez’s attempts to privatize the water of the Ganges River. As Jim Schultz, who is Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Bolivia and who broke the story of the Cochabamba water wars for U.S. and Canadian audiences, said: “It certainly had an impact on the debate about water privatization. After the water wars in Cochabamba, people challenged water privatization from Argentina to Atlanta.”

After the Water Wars, water prices in Cochabamba returned to their rates prior to 2000. The Coordinadora returned control of water to SEMAPA, which community leaders run.

Nonetheless, much work remains to be done in order to increase access to water. While 90 percent of the northern and central regions of Cochabamba have regular access to clean water, less than 50 percent of the southern barrios do. Moreover, their costs of water, since they acquire it from trucks that distribute water, typically run much higher than the costs for their wealthier northern counterparts, for whom it is delivered directly into the house through pipes.

The population of southern Cochabamba is incredibly impoverished. It consists mostly of immigrants from other parts of Bolivia who moved to Cochabamba over the past 40 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, due to droughts and land reforms, many peasants moved to the city from agricultural areas, especially those surrounding La Paz and Sucre. Subsequently, in the 1980s, through the liberalization of industries under Jeffrey Sachs’ proposed New Economic Plan (NEP) and decree DS 21060, mines laid off massive numbers of workers. These workers from cities such as Oruro and Potosi migrated to Cochabamba.

The residents have self-organized, establishing the Association of the Community Water Systems of the South (La Associacíon de Sistemas Comunitarios de Agua del Sur – ASICA Sur) in 2004. Non-politically aligned, ASICA Sur is an umbrella group for various cooperatives, organizations and committees. Securing a loan from the EU, ASICA-Sur has been digging for water sources, building water towers and constructing pipes from the water towers to distribute water.

Codaste 22 Abril, one of the groups within ASICA Sur, organizes in the southern Cochabamba district 14. Filemon Chipana, President of Codaste 22 Abril, said “we are organizing there and laying pipes, drilling for water.”

Regardless of whether water is state-run or community-organized, one serious impediment that plagues both is funding. Internal funds are limited and external funding remains relatively scarce.

The Challenge of Climate Change

In addition to the calamity of financing, which makes the improvement of access to potable water and of sanitation difficult, climate change is providing new challenges to water availability. The water table of Cochabamba has dwindled rapidly over the past decade due to population growth and global warming.

Bolivia is also home to 25 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers. But these are melting at alarming rates, causing water sources to retreat.

Last week, in neighboring Peru, with which Bolivia shares the Andes mountain range, a massive chunk of glacier, measuring 1640 feet by 656 feet, fell into a lake, unleashing a tsunami with a wave up to 75 feet high that washed away villages and people. Approximately 70 percent of the world’s tropical ice fields are in Peru, which have been melting at alarming rates due to global warming.

Between 1975 and 2006, glaciers in the Cordillera Real, a mountain range in the Andes, lost 48 percent of their volume. In the Chacaltaya mountain range, once reknowned for its ski resorts, the Chacaltaya glacier, which provided water to La Paz, vanished in the last year. The Illimani, a glacier on a mountain that has the same name, is also disappearing. As much as 30 percent of La Paz’s water supply comes from glacial melt.

Scientists predict that at current rates, glaciers will have melted within 20 years. While climate reparations will be a major focus of discussions at this week’s People’s
World Conference on Climate Change, Bolivian villagers in particular are requesting compensation for the glaciers melting.

The water wars in Bolivia thus evidence at once the frontlines of neoliberal privatization efforts a decade ago, which are undoubtedly far from over, and the frontlines of climate change currently, with which this week’s upcoming People’s World Conference on Climate Change will grapple.

Tina Gerhardt is a free-lance journalist and academic. Her writings have appeared in In These Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and on thenation.com and salon.com. In December, she wrote daily dispatches about the UNFCCC and climate justice actions in Copenhagen. In April, she covered the UNFCCC preparatory meeting for the COP 16 in Mexico.

The Cochabamba Water Wars: Marcela Olivera Reflects on the Tenth Anniversary of the Popular Uprising Against Bechtel and the Privatization of the City’s Water Supply

For more on this story, please also read:
Water Wars: How One City’s Fight Against Bechtel Ignited a Movement Battling Water Privatization

Ten years ago this month, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba was at the center of an epic fight over one of the city’s most vital natural resources: its own water. The Water Wars occurred just months after the Battle of Seattle. The uprising against Bechtel on the streets of Cochabamba was seen as the embodiment of the international struggle against corporate globalization. Over the past week, water activists from around the world gathered in Cochabamba to mark the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya, just outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Today marks the start of the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth. We will be covering the summit all week.

But right now, we return to our coverage of the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars in Cochabamba. Hundreds of people, through this week, have been marking this decade anniversary. On Sunday, I met up with Marcela Olivera. She served as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. Her brother, Oscar Olivera, led the coalition.

    • OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] If the government doesn’t want the water company to leave the country, the people will throw them out.
  • AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing in the town square, where it all began ten years ago here in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I’m with Marcela Olivera. She was here when the battle against the privatization of water began. And Marcela, it all began with this banner?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, that banner was hanged there when the conflicts start.

    AMY GOODMAN: What does it say?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: It says, “The water is ours, damn it!”

    AMY GOODMAN: “The water is ours, damn it”?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah. And we tried to put the word “carajo,” because it was a strong way to say—because they didn’t understand. We were telling them all the time what water meant to us, and they didn’t understand. So that was the strong way to tell them we are not going to step back in our demands.

    Well, it started with the campesinos. The campesinos were the first ones that realized that the government was trying to impose, was trying to pass a law that will affect their rights about water. So they were the first ones that came to the city, and they told us this is going to happen if we let this law to pass. They are going to privatize our water sources. They are going to privatize our—the wells that the communities own. They are going to privatize the water system in the city. So this law is going to affect to all of that, all of us.

    They knocked the doors of the factory workers, the Federation of Factory Workers, because they were the ones that were giving sort of a political line in the city, you know, that now they were doing a job for several years denouncing what was happening in the factories. So they came here, and they found the workers that wanted to help in this. But also they found a very important group of what I would say academics, intellectuals, that could really read the law and understand how this will affect the people in the future. So these were the main groups that got together here.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your brother, Oscar Olivera, who also became—if there was one face of this movement, it was certainly his. He was in the factory? He was among the factory workers?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, he was, in that time, the leader of the Federation of Factory Workers. The movement, themselves, didn’t call them leaders of the movement. We called them “spokespersons.” And there were also several levels of organization. So we, for example, knew if they were going to put them in jail, to the first level, that were the spokespersons, there was another level that was going to take over the leadership of the movement. So there were several—the coordinator was organizing on several levels.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did Bechtel come to Bolivia?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, the government did call for a concession for an open—they sent an open invitation to companies to come to the country. As far as I know, three companies presented their papers, but two backed out afterwards. Bechtel was the one that stayed. It was a consortium, actually. There were some local businessmen that participated in the consortium. And they decided to take over the water system. The signature of that agreement was actually in this building in front of us. And when they signed that agreement, there was a small group of protesters in these doors. And Banzer, who was the president in that time—

    AMY GOODMAN: Had been the longtime dictator—


    AMY GOODMAN: —before he was elected president.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Exactly. When he heard the people protesting outside, because people does that with fireworks, he said, “Oh, I am accustomed to hear that kind of music in the background.” And he didn’t think that the music will be really loud several months later.

    The first mobilizations against the privatization of the water system and this law started to happen in November, December from 1999. They were very small and sporadic, but they were growing.

    AMY GOODMAN: This was when the Battle of Seattle took place, actually.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: I think we—in this time, we didn’t realize that this was happening at the other part of the world. So it’s good to see how later those struggles connected and both were successful. But that was in 1999.

    In January, there were still protests. We shut down the city for several days. The officials from the government came here to negotiate. Nothing, no result, happened from the negotiations, until February. On the 4th of February, we called to the people to a mobilization here. We call it “la toma de la plaza.” That was the takeover of the plaza. For us, that was like a party. It was going to be a party, because it was going to be the meeting of the people from the fields, the countryside, coming here and meeting the people from the city, because it was the demand of the people from the countryside and our demand from the city. So we planned to do this with music. Several groups were hired. And it was going to be really a party.

    And we decided the things—the way that we are going to come together here from the four points of the city. One was in that direction. The other, the cocaleros, came from the one bridge.

    AMY GOODMAN: The coca growers.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: The neighbors from the south came from the south. There were the Federation of Factory Workers, all the workers, came from a plaza near here. So it was all getting together here at one time.

    The government said that that wasn’t going to be allowed to happen. Several days before this was going to happen, they sent policemen in cars and in motorcycles that were surrounding the city, trying to scare the people. And the actual day of the mobilization, they didn’t let the people walk even ten meters, and they started to shoot them with gases.

    Many of us, I’m sure, went back to our houses, and we saw on the TV what was happening in the morning and what was still going on. We said, this cannot happen. They were beating women. They were beating children. They were throwing gases to people. So we stood up, and we went to the streets that afternoon. And many people from the city that wasn’t being part of the mobilization suddenly joined. And we were hundreds and hundreds of people trying to take the plaza, because we would say, “The plaza is ours. Why we are not going to take it?” And it was more than a battle to get something; it was a battle to occupy physically a space that we considered was ours, and we had the right to have this space.

    That didn’t happen. For one day, they—it was awful, because they threw rubber bullets to people. There were many bonded. And something that we didn’t expect is that the next day people will mobilize again for the same thing. We thought, “Oh, it’s over. It’s night. Everybody went home. Nothing is going to happen.” But no, next day, the cocaleros that were staying here, they came from the field, they came from Chapare, they were—

    AMY GOODMAN: Led by Evo Morales.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, exactly. They were the ones that took over again the streets and tried to take over the plaza again. And that inspired to other people, the students and neighborhoods, and we all came here that Saturday, and we took the plaza, finally. And it was a huge victory, I think, because we could agree with the government—we signed an agreement with the government, and they froze the water bills and created a commission to negotiate with a coordinator of the terms of the contract with Bechtel.

    At some point in March, when we get to March, we realized the government wasn’t going to do anything, and they were just trying to gain some time. So what happened in March is we called to a popular referendum. This is not something that was contemplated on the Constitution. It wasn’t legal. But we believe it was legitimate. So, many volunteers put tables in many parts of the city, but also in the countryside, and we had two, three clear questions. One was, do you want to make changes in the law, in the legislation about water, that reflects the demands of the people? The other question was, do you want Bechtel to leave our country? And there was—the third question was, do you want the water company to return to public hands? And 98 percent of the population answered, we want this company out, we want changes in the law, and we want the company to come back to public hands. The government didn’t take that in account, either; they completely dismissed the results of what we have done.

    And we, on that time, we realized that we had to do something else. So in April we called to the final battle. That’s the way that we portrayed that. It was like we were going to win, or we were going to lose. There wasn’t any alternative, any other alternative. So we called again for mobilizations. And they were a month later, after February. For four or five days, people mobilized here.

    At the beginning, there were many people, 25,000 probably, here in the plaza. But as the days were passing, less people started to come to the mobilizations. And the police didn’t come to repress. And we knew that they have changed completely the strategy. They knew that if they took the police outside, that was going to be—make angry to the people. So that’s why they didn’t do it, and they were playing for us to get tired.

    They were—negotiations were still happening anyway. The government never considered the coordinator a legal entity, so they didn’t want to negotiate with the coordinator or spokespersons. But people still were pushing them to be inside of negotiations. There is something that Oscar always tell us, that, you know, when the negotiations were happening here and people were all around the plaza, the government said, “I’m not going to talk to you guys, because you are not legal. You can leave.” So they were leaving, but the people here didn’t let them get out of the building. They said, “No, you have to be inside, because you have to negotiate for us.” So Oscar said that the spokespersons of the coordinator suddenly stayed in a hole, not be able to go outside, but not also be able to be in the middle of negotiations.

    During the conflict, there wasn’t any birds here.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcela, we’ve done three corners of this park, where the factory workers still have their offices, the government offices, and now across the park, the church.


    AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the role of the Archbishop.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: The Archbishop was very important during the Water War, because he was the person that sort of mediated with the government and the people, but not just being impartial. You know, he took a side. He took the side of the people. And he completely agreed with the demands of the people, because it was obviously—you know, it was obvious we were right. He was very important. He was always on the side of the people.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he could be cardinal today, if he hadn’t done that ten years ago?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: I think he could. He could, but he—because he took a side of the people, probably against what the normal role of the Church is, because the Church is always trying to be impartial in a conflict, but no, he took a side, and he was on the side of the people. He took the right side.

    People who were organizing on every corner were the young people, what we call the water warriors. They call themselves the guerreros del agua. So they were in every corner, and they were in this church also. There was one kid from the street that will ring a bell every time that he’ll see the police or the army coming. He was on the very top of the tower.

    AMY GOODMAN: They tied ropes around the bell?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yes. So every time that they will see a police or army coming, they will, you know, ring the bell, and we will all know they were coming, and people will get ready to fight them. So it was—they organized—the young people organized themselves in a way that nobody told them how to do it. You know, they did it by themselves. Nobody told them you have to do this, you have—nobody.

    I don’t think anybody expected what was going to happen. You know, in February, we thought, oh, this was amazing, and, you know, something that—like a peak, you know? Never something like that will happen again. But in April, it happened again. And I don’t think I will ever live something like that. My parents will say that they didn’t see something like that since the revolution in the ‘52. So, you know, all the people who were living that time, I’m pretty sure they feel like, you know, it was so historical.

    There is a military base here. And at some point, during the conflict in April, when we hear this rumors that a police was coming, that the army was coming, that the government was sending the army to kill the people, some of the citizens felt like they need to be armed, too, in order to respond to the government, to the army. At that point, you know, the demands of the people were not just we want the company to leave; the demands of the people were, we want this government to leave, and we’re going to make our own government here. So that was kind of scary, because we didn’t know how this was going to end up. I don’t think—and that could reveal also how the movement was growing. You know, it was so spontaneous, and nobody was leading it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Here, you have a woman holding a slingshot, with soldiers at the other end of the street, or police. Tell us about this.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah. What they were—the people were trying to do, and you don’t see it here, but there are people here also. We were trying to take over the plaza that was behind the police line. And we are like just two blocks away from the plaza. So the woman is throwing them stones with this traditional—gun?

    AMY GOODMAN: Slingshot.

    MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, we call that guaraca in Quechua, so it’s very—we use—the people use that in the fields to—for llamas, to put them—to keep them together.

    What happened ten years ago, it opened the doors to what we have right now and what we’re going to have later. You know, if we have a president like Evo Morales, it’s because the social movements in April 2000 opened a door for that to happen. And the message, I think, is that we are not—the Water War is not over. The conflict ten years ago was not just about water; it was about something else, especially what we call democracy. It was about who decides about the things that matter to us, that are important to us. And ten years later, we are in a point where we want to say it was not over, it’s not over. We are still trying to not resist—you know, resist privatization, in this case, but to build something. And I think there’s still a long ways to go.

    You know, we were—I feel like—personally, I feel like I was a very important part of the history, in that we changed a little bit the curse of what was going on. The lesson of the Water War is that nothing is definitive, that we always can change things. The system was privatized already here; we could put it back, we could break that, and we could get back the company into our hands, something that we never imagined that could happen. And this is something that Oscar all the time says, that slogan that we always repeat on the streets, that the people, united, will never be defeated, it’s something that we lived here in Cochabamba ten years ago, and it’s something that we believe it can happen again and again and again.

    We never thought we were going to win. Never. Never thought we were going to win. What we were doing, it was struggling for that minute and that second. I don’t think in anybody’s head was the fact, we’re going to win this war.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what about when you did win?

    MARCELA OLIVERA: It was an incredible joy, but also it was very sad, because in the way to get something that we want, we lost people, and young people.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcela Olivera, she served as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. For all the images of what happened ten years ago in the streets of Cochabamba, where we’re broadcasting from, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon. Stay with us.

Another View: Wells was right to turn down ‘devil’s deal’ with Nestle

Regarding the inaccuracies in the editorial regarding water rate hikes in the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Wells Water District (“Water use battles play out in rate hike talk,” April 6): In the words of President Obama, “You can’t make stuff up!”

Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage corporation, owns the Poland Spring brand. There is no longer a Maine company named Poland Spring. And when you deal with multinational corporations like Nestle, international trade agreements take precedence over local ordinances. Any “regulatory ordinance” the town of Wells could have come up with could not have controlled this corporate behemoth.

The so-called regulatory ordinance would have allowed large-scale extraction by Nestle of 432,000 gallons per day of our water, for which they would have paid nothing to the town of Wells. Nestle already mines millions of gallons of Maine water each year, and it pays no per-gallon state tax. Further, the Wells taxpayers would have had to foot the bill for damage to our roads caused by Nestle’s trucks hauling our water away.

Nestle claimed that there would be “good jobs in Maine,” not that there would be any jobs for Mainers. The only possible jobs would have been a few truck-driving positions. But since our water would have been sent off to a bottling plant in Massachusetts, there would have been no need to hire local Maine drivers.

The town of Wells overwhelmingly turned down a devil’s deal with Nestle. Do you really think that giving away millions of gallons of our water to the giant Nestle Corp. would be a proposition that Wells voters would ever want to revisit? Do you think that there is any possible reason the people of Wells would want to give Nestle a second look? I don’t think so.

New Jersey Supreme Court Ruling a Victory for Citizens of Trenton

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

Washington, D.C.-“Yesterday, the Supreme Court of New Jersey overwhelmingly agreed that the people of Trenton should have a say in how public water resources are managed with its 5-1 ruling to allow a referendum regarding the potential sale of a portion of Trenton’s water system to a private company. A local citizen’s group has been engaged in a two-year battle with American Water to allow the citizens of Trenton to exercise their rights to directly participate in the decision to sell off a major component of their publically-owned water system.

“Food & Water Watch applauds the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s validation of the public’s will to have a say in the ways in which their essential water resources are governed and managed. To have denied the referendum would have undermined fundamental principals in state law that guarantee that water resources are managed for the benefit of the public.

“This is a victory for the people of Trenton and a setback for any corporations who may be planning to preempt public participation by shifting the debate from the ballot box to the courtroom.”

“We call on the City of Trenton to swiftly resume the referendum process that was halted last year.”

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch (202) 683-2500, kfried(at)foodandwaterwatch(dot)org