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.