Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 9 (Spring 2003): Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World: Articles: Winning the Water War

Jun 19, 2003

“Rights are not given. Rights are won. Nobody is going to fight our fight. We struggle together for what is just, or we tolerate the humiliation of bad government.” This communiqué from Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life) from January 11, 2000, initiated the turning point in the fight for the Bolivian people’s right to water.

Since 1985, Bolivia—along with several other Latin American countries—has undergone a process of structural adjustment. As part of the package of policies promoted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, most of the public companies in the country were privatized. In 1999, the Bolivian government proceeded with the privatization of the water system in Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia. It handed over the service to the consortium Aguas del Tunari, whose major shareholder is the transnational corporation Bechtel.

The World Bank, the IMF, and the Bolivian government went beyond the privatization of water to demand a regulatory framework that would give foreign companies complete control over the water system and its infrastructure. Federal Law 2029 was created to eliminate the people’s guarantees to water distribution in rural areas. The government expropriated the water and irrigation systems to Aguas del Tunari, as the sole concessionaire with rights to the water. Irrigating farmers, communities, and neighborhoods on the periphery of the city, all of which relied on autonomous water service, suddenly lost all rights to these water sources.

Before any infrastructure investments were made to ensure improved or expanded services, rates increased overall, even tripling for some of the poorest people. In a country where the minimum wage is roughly $60 a month, many of us received water bills of $20 and more. Water was shut off completely for others. People 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 company sought a 16 percent annual return on its investment, price hikes simply put water out of the reach of many people.

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 Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida. The Coordinadora represented 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 and were exaggerated and abusive. This coalition also represented unionized workers whose experience helped our organizational continuity in moments of conflict.

The Coordinadora mobilized several large-scale protests that were met with much police resistance and violence. The government responded by signing an agreement with the Coordinadora promising to review the law and the contract, but it refused to lower the water tariffs. In protest, the people refused to pay their water bills for almost two months.

When it became evident that the agreement was not being honored, a new protest was announced. The Coordinadora called for a peaceful taking of the central plaza. It was a profoundly symbolic act to demonstrate the unity and degree of legitimacy behind the articulated demands. The government and the departmental elites announced that they were not going to allow any protests and ordered that the planned demonstration be repressed by local police and officers brought in from other parts of the country. The confrontation lasted two days. 175 protesters were injured. Finally a new agreement was reached by the Coordinadora and the government. Water rates were frozen at 1999 price levels. Commissions comprised of professionals, peasant irrigators, labor leaders, environmentalists, and government officials were formed to review the law and the contract.

The protests in February 2000 secured respect for the people’s right to participate and their right to water. The people forced the government to enter into direct negotiations over both the Bechtel contract and the new national water law that threatened to take away communities’ control of their local water systems.

During these negotiations the Coordinadora carried out a consulta popular in which tables were set up in public spaces throughout the Cochabamba valley. People were asked what demands the Coordinadora should carry to government officials. Nearly 60,000 participated, almost 10 percent of the entire population. In a clear expression of the widespread doubt that the corporation would ever serve the people’s interests, 95 percent voted that the Bechtel contract should be broken entirely and that the national water law should be changed to guarantee local control of rural irrigation systems. The consulta gave new legitimacy to these demands and expanded popular involvement in our struggle. The water revolt was not just about making water affordable, but also about the people’s demands that it be controlled not by a foreign corporation but by people and their communities.

At the beginning of April, 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 death of a seventeen-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. It was the first popular victory in eighteen years of neoliberalism, and it has changed history. Since then there has been a gradual shift in the relationship between government elites and working people.

The local water consortium, SEMAPA, is now run by representatives from the Coordinadora, community leaders, and members of the local government. Recently, SEMAPA appointed a new Board of Directors formed by two representatives of the Cochabamba Municipal Council (one being the mayor himself), the union of SEMAPA workers, the College of Engineers, and three representatives who were directly elected by the population through open elections in the three districts of the city. SEMAPA and the Coordinadora have created an important opportunity to demonstrate a workable alternative to the privatization of water delivery. This collective process that relies upon neither the government nor transnational corporations is the only rescue from debt and inefficiency that does not compromise the people’s right to water.

This victory was just the beginning of the real struggle to make human rights more than just a formal illusion. What was won through the water war was the right to participate in the governing of our country and the distribution of our resources. Neoliberalism has robbed us of our right to participate in decision-making for almost two decades. The attainment of civil and political rights, such as the rights to participation, decision-making, free speech, and assembly is crucial to ensuring access to essential services such as water. Government control of essential services, as opposed to private ownership, provides the people with more opportunities to exercise their civil and political rights, but direct public participation is critical to ensuring the government acts responsibly. This victory has opened the road for the long struggle of building our own democracy, in which representatives serve the people and not the reverse.

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