Cochabamba Water War Presents Globalization Alternative to the World

Kris Krüg/Flickr Creative Commons

In December 2000, members of the IFG Committee on Water and Globalization were invited to Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba. We were invited to participate in an international conference on the privatization and globalization of water and to create a partnership between the citizens of Cochabamba and the international movement against corporate globalization. While there, we met with Cochabambans from all walks of life who had taken part in a citizen uprising to take back their water from those who had put it in the global market place: their government, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and U.S. corporate interests. In so doing, we learned once again that alternatives to corporate globalization exist and can be replicated around the world.

In late 1999, at the behest of the World Bank and IMF, the Bolivian government privatized Cochabamba’s water system. Aguas Del Tunari, a local subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, was the only bidder.

The worst predictions of water privatization were quickly realized: Before any infrastructure investments were made to ensure improved or expanded services, rates increased overall and as much as tripled for some of the poorest customers. In a country where the minimum wage was less than $60 per month, many users received water bills of and above $20 per month. The law privatized all water supplies in the city. As a consequence, citizens who had built family wells or water irrigation systems decades earlier suddenly had to pay Aguas del Tunari for the right to use this water. While the price hikes simply put water out of the reach of these customers, the company sought to reach its goal of a16% average annual return on their investment.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the Helm

It was not difficult to predict the failure of Cochabamba’s water privatization experiment. The same rate increases and loss of rights to water due to privatization can be seen around the world. In turn, Bolivia had been privatizing industry after industry for years at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While Bolivia’s faithful adherence to privatization has earned it a ranking as one of the World Bank’s best performing portfolios, the Bank has also noted a “fundamental paradox” in its policies. For, while Bolivia is a privatization poster child, it remains one of the poorest nations in the world with approximately 70 percent of its population living in poverty. The bank has been unable to solve this paradox because it refuses to question privatization plans that guarantee the rights of the privatizer, while trampling those of the consumer. Fortunately, the people of Cochabamba did not suffer from the same paralysis.

Taking Back the Water

In response to the attack on their most precious resource, the people of Cochabamba fought back, forming an alliance of labor, environmental, human rights and community leaders, known as “La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida” (the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life), to lead a new people’s movement to take back the City’s water.

La Coordinadora first responded with peaceful marches. When the marches were met with violence by the police and silence by the government, the people organized a public referendum to determine how to proceed. 50,000 people voted in the referendum, the vast majority demanding that the government end the contract with Aguas del Tunari.

When the referendum was ignored by the government, the people of Cochabamba – young and old, students and workers, city and country dwellers — engaged in a unified nonviolent uprising to take back their water. These “water warriors” shut down Cochabamba through coordinated nonviolent street protests, strikes and blockades. The government then declared a State of Siege – arresting protest leaders in their beds, shutting down radio stations and sending more than 1000 soldiers in to the streets with live ammunition. A 17-year-old boy was killed and dozens of others were wounded. After weeks of confrontation the citizens refused to back down and on April 10, 2000, the government conceded, signing an accord to end its contract with Aguas del Tunari and Bechtel. The Bechtel Corporation has responded by threatening to sue the government of Bolivia for lost investments and potential future lost profits through a Multilateral Agreement on Investment-style Bilateral Investment Treaty.

The “Third Way”

With the government locked in a contract dispute with Bechtel, no one was providing the city with water. So the workers of the water company, SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado), began running the water system themselves.

With the help of La Coordinadora, the water workers held regular citizen’s meetings to determine need. They reduced prices, built new water tanks and laid pipes—bringing service to neighborhoods that had never received water before. Funding proposals were devised to attract investment to make the company solvent. For the first time, water is being provided universally, fairly and reliably.

The members of the IFG witnessed firsthand the intense popular support and expectations for both SEMAPA and La Coordinadora. They have shown the citizens of Cochabamba and the world a true third way—not government corruption or privatization, but a public / government partnership where a public service is run with the full support and inclusion of its workers and its community.

The members of the IFG Committee on the Globalization of Water held a press conference to demonstrate our support for La Coordinadora and SEMAPA, we met with citizens from across the city to hear first hand their experiences before, after and during the uprising, and we strategized with members of La Coordinadora on how to continue our partnership.

During our conference on water privatization and globalization, the IFG invited members of the audience including workers, students, lawyers, farmers, and others, to join us in drafting a “Declaration of Cochabamba,” which states, among other things, that water is a basic human right to be protected and provided by the people. Water is not to be traded and sold by financial institutions or multinational corporations. The declaration is a starting point for building an international people’s movement in support of the Cochabamba alternative.

In the words of a 17-year-old Cochabamban “water warrior”, the battle has been won, but the war is not over. There will always be another Bechtel and another World Bank policy if we do not fight for greater change.” Now is when we begin.

From the International Forum on Globalization Newsletter.