Water in Bolivia: Defeating the Multinationals Is Just the Start of the Problem

Set in a landscape of dry brown hills and arroyos flooded with dust, Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city, is not rich in water. Seen from the air in early September, at the tail end of the southern winter, the land is brown and barren from the ridgetops to the river valleys. A warm wind blows dust in billowing clouds.

Source: Alternet

Set in a landscape of dry brown hills and arroyos flooded with dust, Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city, is not rich in water. Seen from the air in early September, at the tail end of the southern winter, the land is brown and barren from the ridgetops to the river valleys. A warm wind blows dust in billowing clouds. Thousands of feet below the soaring, icy peaks of the altiplano to the west, and thousands of feet above the lush coca fields of the Chapare to the east and the Amazon to the north, Cochabamba enjoys the mildest climate in the country, but suffers from what geographers call "water stress," compounded here, as everywhere, by climate change.

Five years ago, Mount Tunari, the wind-sculpted escarpment that reaches to 14,000 feet above Cochabamba’s streets, was capped in snow year-round. Today, the mountain — an important source of water for local agriculture and groundwater recharge — has snow only three months of the year.

Cochabamba’s water struggles were catapulted into international awareness in 2000, when the city’s residents, along with their rural and peri-urban neighbors, organized to oust the multinational giant Bechtel, which had privatized the city’s water and hiked tariffs far beyond most people’s means.

The fight has been recognized as one of the moments that ignited the grassroots water-justice movement that spread throughout the world. Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue has gained attention everywhere, from the halls of the United Nations, where 2005-2015 has been declared the International Decade of Action: Water for Life, to the pages of Fortune magazine, where corporate CEOs tell us that water is "the oil of the 21st century." Is water a human right to be provided by governments through public management, or is it a commodity to be protected by the free market and measured and metered by private business?

As ground zero of the water war, how the issue plays out in post-Bechtel Cochabamba is a barometer of how it may play out elsewhere. In the years since Bechtel left, the gains of the water war have been difficult to consolidate, and Cochabamba has become a shining example of the massive challenges for a dry municipality in a deeply impoverished country to manage its water in a way that is both equitable and efficient. The water-justice movement is clamoring for public control of water, but as Cochabamba is showing, in an era dominated by corporate control and private capital, this is no easy feat.

How the Problems Began

Cochabamba’s privatization struggle started in 1996, when the mayor announced that the World Bank would relieve the city’s water stress with a $14 million loan. The next year, World Bank offered $600 million in foreign debt relief. But both packages came with the condition that Cochabamba’s water utility, widely reputed for corruption and inefficiency, be taken over by a private company. In 1999, the company, SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado), was bought out in a private bid, by Aguas de Tunari, majority controlled by San Francisco-based Bechtel.

Not long after, union leaders, environmental activists and rural-water stewards came together to form a coalition they called La Coordinadora Por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida, or simply La Coordinadora, to wrest back control of the water utility. What ensued — street riots, hunger strikes, the occupation of the Central Plaza, the government’s declaration of a state of siege, many wounded and one youth killed, and the eventual, ecstatic, ejection of Bechtel — quickly passed into legend. Occurring only months after the Battle of Seattle, Cochabamba’s water war became one of the most widely publicized stories of the anti-globalization movement — a major triumph for the People, United.

When Bechtel was given the boot, SEMAPA passed into public hands, and it’s reform became, for a time, a cause célèbre, and an attempt to put direct democracy into practice. Jim Shultz, the lanky, amiable North American director of the Democracy Center, a small nonprofit that supports Bolivia’s popular movements, says: "In its first few months, SEMAPA enjoyed a wave of public goodwill. It rolled back rates to their pre-Bechtel levels, and water customers quickly began paying their overdue water bills. Everyone wanted Cochabamba’s public company to succeed."

In an effort to develop "social control" in SEMAPA, a team of citizen directors was established, made up of a representative of Bolivia’s new Ministry of Water, a representative of the provincial governor’s office, the mayor of Cochabamba and four ordinary citizens representing the four major zones of the city, charged with overseeing the budget, ensuring transparency and watching over the company’s director.

But, when it came time for the people of Cochabamba to elect SEMAPA’s citizen directors, scarcely 4 percent of eligible voters turned out, and nobody seemed to know why. In a move typical of countries where corruption historically filters through all levels of society, the first elected director filled the company with friends and family and was removed from office by popular fiat in 2005. The second director did much the same and was removed two years later. When I asked one SEMAPA worker who had been active in the water war and remains active in the water workers’ union what could be done to root out corruption, he said, "We threw out two directors already. If the next director is corrupt, we’ll throw him out, too."

SEMAPA continues to suffer from all of the problems that plague public utilities throughout the developing world: unmanageable debt, leakage and infamously poor service. Local researchers now say that, if SEMAPA serves as a model for anything, it’s a model of what can go wrong in public water management.

Making Progress

As a spokesman for the forces that ousted Bechtel in 2000, Oscar Olivera has a profound stake in the future of water management in Cochabamba. When I spoke with him in his office at a corner of the Cochabamba’s central plaza, he was disarmingly honest.

"The truth is," he said, "I feel a mix of anguish and sorrow at the state of our movement. There’s a sense of impotence, that what we’ve done isn’t enough. There are a lot of questions about where to go. Because, essentially there have been two movements. One is a movement to expel the transnationals, a movement that managed to break free of the economic model that wants to privatize everything. The second is a movement to construct a new kind of social action, a new concept of development, a new way to measure well-being. It’s a movement to establish a new society, one in balance with nature. I always like to point out that, behind the fight for water lies the struggle for democracy.

"We’re in the midst of a struggle to preserve life itself. The problem is, we know how to resist. But we are only now learning how to construct something new."

Waxing hopeful, Olivera spoke of the water committees that had developed spontaneously in the Zona Sur, a sprawling neighborhood at Cochabamba’s southern flank.

"The water committees have begun establishing a new kind of social organization, a new kind of conviviality, that, while it’s not always optimal in terms of efficiency — largely because of a lack of financing — it has a tremendous component of solidarity, of transparency; the participation of these committees opens spaces that are very political, very combative and very clear in their defense of the common good."

That’s what led me to visit Angel Hurtado, Education Director for ASICA Sur.

Hurtado met me outside his office, auspiciously located above a Cuban medical clinic in a neighborhood called Primero de Mayo. In a neat button-down shirt, gray wool vest, pleated trousers and gold-rimmed glasses and with his cell phone at his belt, Hurtado looked the part of a midlevel water utility manager. But he proved to be much more than just that.

"When I arrived here, in the ’80s," Hurtado told me, "there was no water, no clinics, no schools. We had a spring, up the hill, and two natural wells, and the whole neighborhood drank from these sources. So we began building tanks and taps. From this effort was born, over time, the Association of Community Water Systems of the Southern Zone — ASICA Sur. There was no one to help us. We had to do everything ourselves." Down the hill a group of men operated a large drill spitting up mud and soil, perforating a new well. "This project, it’s taken months to get it going," Hurtado hollered over the shrieking of the drill. "We have our problems. But it’s going."

Residents of Primero de Mayo, a sprawl of hilter-kilter concrete houses tumbling down the eroded slopes of the Cochabamba Valley, played a key role in the water war, and Hurtado’s voice registered a quiet pride as he shared the story.

"We were militant," he said, "and very unified. We held a general assembly, and three of us were chosen to lead the mobilizations. I was in charge of security and making sure everybody had food and medicine. We marched every day, 14 kilometers into Cochabamba to fight in the streets, and 14 kilometers home at night. We had to fight every day, because the goal of the authorities was to destroy our leadership. But it didn’t go so well for them. After months of fighting, we finally won."

Before coming to the Cochabamba Valley, Hurtado was a miner in Oruro, a high, barren province bereft of agriculture but rich in silver, copper, tin and tungsten. Like many others I would talk to over the course of two weeks in Cochabamba, Hurtado traces his history to a turning point in 1985. It was then that the country’s New Economic Policy deregulated the mining industry, just as tin prices collapsed on the world market, throwing hundreds of thousands of Bolivian miners out of work. The mass migration that followed, known as the relocalization, produced the sprawling, informal growth that has become Cochabamba’s Zona Sur. It also produced a revolutionary underclass that forms the backbone of Bolivia’s fierce social movements.

"As miners, we came to Primero de Mayo from different parts of the country. This neighborhood, in my vision, it’s a revolutionary neighborhood, a revolutionary army. Whenever there’s a social struggle, there we are. But we don’t struggle por loco. We struggle because we need to change the political system, the economic system. Ever since the relocalization, this is our function — to bring about structural change."

Elsewhere in the Zona Sur, Fabian Condori, a weathered Aymara, directs the Asociacion de Produccion y Administracion de Agua y Saneamiento de Sebastian Pagador, or APAAS, the first water committee in the Zona Sur. Like Primero de Mayo, San Sebastian Pagador is a neighborhood made up of relocalized miners and displaced peasant farmers.

"The goal of the water war," Condori told me, "was to retake SEMAPA for the people. And I believe that SEMAPA should serve the people — all of us. I don’t believe we should need small community water services. But SEMAPA isn’t doing its job, so we have to do it. We come from the neighborhood, we’re self-sufficient, self-managed and autonomous. The cooperatives didn’t emerge from an ideological vision, but from a common need."

In his office, Condori showed me a crumbling Styrofoam maquette of the water system he administered: from a deep well, drilled a quarter-century ago in Cochabamba’s floodplain, water is pumped to the foothills some miles away. From there, a second pump, powered by a V8 engine still attached to the chassis of the automobile it had once served, lifts the water 200 meters over a mountain pass to a large tank perched atop a ridge. From there, the maquette showed a thin wire, representing the main pipe, running along the ridge to another set of tanks, from where it descends into the neighborhood for domestic use.

"Every Friday," Condori said, "our workers walk the entire line checking for leaks and clandestine connections. Just two workers check the whole line, every week. We have a 6 percent water loss from leaks. Compare that to SEMAPA’s 54 percent. Not bad."

APPAS is an autonomous association, like a cooperative, managed by Condori but governed by the neighborhood itself. "We decide everything by assembly," Condori told me. "When there are enough complaints, we organize special assemblies. When 51 percent of the people vote for something, it becomes law. I don’t decide for the people. They decide for themselves."

"What if someone can’t pay?" I asked.

"If someone can’t pay, we don’t shut off the water. Not right away. We encourage neighbors to help out, or we allow them time to get the money together. If time passes, and they still don’t pay, eventually we have to cut off the service. But we try to make it easy for everyone.

"In our neighborhood, we have 6,000 water users. When we hold an Assembly, 95 percent of them show up. If someone isn’t happy with their service, they speak up."

Progress Spreads

Curious to learn more about the cooperatives, I traveled to the city of Santa Cruz, 150 miles and a world away from Cochabamba, to meet with Gregorio Jaldin, director of the Federacion Departamental de Cooperativas de Agua de Santa Cruz, a union of water cooperatives.

"There are cooperatives in Cochabamba, in La Paz, in Tarija, in Santa Cruz, and we’re at the beginning of developing a National Federation of Cooperatives," he told me. "Why? Because we’ve seen that strengthening community water systems is the only way to build unity among the communities. In the area of health, for example, we’ve created a clinic to provide health services for free, just with the money that comes from water service. There’s a solidarity fund to pay for funerals; if someone dies, the cooperative pays for their funeral. It’s like a system of social security, but rather than being administered by the state, everything is run by popular assembly.

"I’ll give you an example: Many cooperatives, with the few resources they have, can’t buy a pump. But the larger cooperatives can lend them the money until they’re able to pay back the loan. If they need pipes or tools, they can borrow them. If they need help digging trenches or expanding their water system, the other cooperatives come out to help.

"The cooperative system is so beautiful, because it’s a system of mutual aid, always seeking equality among everyone; it’s not about profit or personal gain. In my opinion, a National Federation of Cooperatives is really the answer to Bolivia’s water problems."

"Does Evo support the cooperatives?" I asked him.

The question brought a smile, brightened yet more by Jaldin’s prominent silver tooth. "People think Evo brought about all the changes in our country," he said. "The truth is, Evo is a product of the social movements."

The same was true, he told me, of the Water Ministry itself.

"Before Evo Morales was president, because of the sacrifices of the social movements and La Coordinadora, we got this ministry. It grew out of our demand that the government take our needs seriously."

Bolivia is the first country in the hemisphere to have a Cabinet-level position dedicated to water governance. According to Jaldin, this is one of the most important developments in his country in recent years.

"It sends a message that our little organizations can have a big impact. Now the human right to water is on everybody’s mind, throughout Latin America and the world."

Like countries throughout Latin America, Bolivia is undergoing a process of constitutional reform, largely driven by the question of the right to water. In 2004, Uruguay enshrined the right to water in its constitution. In 2008, Ecuador ratified the world’s first constitution that recognizes that nature itself has fundamental rights, on which human rights depend, including the right to water. Colombia and El Salvador have strong movements to include the right to water in their constitutions. And Bolivia’s new constitution, drafted but not yet approved, declares water to be a right that is fundamentalisimo — profoundly fundamental. If one wants a testament that water and democracy are linked, as Oscar Oliveria insists, this wave of constitutional reform certainly offers it.

Today’s Struggle

During the last week of August 2008, a seminar took place in Cochabamba organized by a coalition of Latin American water rights groups called the Red Vida (whose acronym in Spanish means the Interamerican Network for the Vigilance of Water Rights). The title and theme of the event was, "The Public Management of a Common Good," and people involved in all aspects of water management had come from virtually every country in the Americas to share their experiences.

At long, open meeting sessions the national water workers union of Uruguay told of its solidarity with the deeply impoverished city of Potosi, where they were installing a new water system; a state bureaucrat from Venezuela argued forcefully and in a flurry of rhetoric that the state can meet the needs of the people only after the people take back the state from the oligarchs; a young activist from Ecuador shared tales of water-delivery systems run by rural communities on microcredit; a group of Colombians told how they had recently navigated several of that country’s great rivers in their quest to collect a million-and-a-half signatures to reform their constitution; an Italian solidarity group announced a project for an Andean water school to be partially funded by the city of Venice. In short, the Cochabamba meeting was a platform for a tremendous diversity of popular organizations to share the lessons they were learning in forging what many participants referred to as "a new culture of water."

The Red Vida seminar was presided over by the directors of several local water committees — ad-hoc groups responsible for supplying drinking water and sanitation services in marginal areas where Cochabamba’ notoriously inefficient public utility fails to provide. Bolivia’s Minister of Water Renee Orellana was present, as was  Olivera.

The event opened with words by Eduardo Yssa, the Aymara director of ASICA Sur. With piercing eyes and wearing the traditional bowl-cut of the Aymara, Yssa, who had recently been in a near-fatal auto accident, put aside his crutches, thanked everyone for being present and got straight to the point.

"Compañeros," he said, "if we go much longer failing to recognize that water is life, we will have no life left."

Before a roomful of water managers from up and down the spine of the Americas, all struggling to construct a new politics of water, Yssa invoked his ancestors.

"Before," he said, "when there was no rain in the altiplano, the authorities were obliged to walk up to the springs, up in the mountains, on foot, and to carry a bottle of water back to the altiplano. There they would meet with another authority, who would bring music, autochthonous music. Then, in a special ritual, with the sacrifice of a goat or a llama, they would toss the water to the four winds, the four cardinal points, and they would pray, and then it would rain. They got results. Today, we come to the city like children, and we fail to practice these things. We fail to respect the water."

"Compañeros," he repeated in halting Spanish, "as long as we fail to recognize that water is life, because though you might have money, or gold, or silver, though you might have entire gold mines, you won’t have life, until we respect the water, all of life is in danger."

Of course Yssa was right, but what does it mean to respect the water after centuries of plunder have left countries like Bolivia bereft of even the most basic resources, and after decades of dictatorship and crony capitalism have eroded the social fabric to the point where many people must choose between corruption and hunger? How we view the corruption and apparent failure of SEMAPA depends on how we understand the economics of scarcity that came before, and the problem of debt that wracks the country, and the depth of poverty that forces Bolivians, from the rank and file to the halls of government, to make incredibly difficult choices; how we judge the faltering democratic institutions in Bolivia depends on how we view the history of dictatorship, oligarchy and colonization from which these institutions emerge.

What the water war won, after all, is the political space to discuss and develop real alternatives — something that hasn’t been seen in Bolivia for somewhere in the vicinity of 500 years. Of course, water is always local, and this political space — let’s call it water democracy — demands diverse means to thrive. One of the problems with water privatization is that it imposes a static, singular economic imperative on a subject that is, by its nature, fluid. The many struggles for water across the Americas reveal that building water democracy means encouraging new models to emerge.

As Olivera told me so eloquently after admitting to the difficulty of constructing something new, "The water war showed us that it’s possible to change our lives, collectively; that even if our enemy is very powerful, he’s not invincible. We learned that, maybe capitalism can privatize everything, but what it can never privatize is our capacity to dream. And as long as we have the capacity to dream, we have the obligation to keep struggling for a better world."

The Red Vida and other regional water networks are struggling to define what public management and community control of water might look like in the next century; what they are finding is that a diversity of models are needed to respond to a diversity of crises and conditions. At the Cochabamba seminar, this notion was perhaps best summed up by Adriana Marquisio of Uruguay’s Comision Nacional en la Defensa del Agua y de la Vida when she said, "Popular control of water is a dream that does not belong solely to technicians and academics, but that is constructed from the accumulated wisdom and experience of all of our communities. To bring about true public management of water, we must get beyond the logic of politics — fear of acting outside the electoral sphere; we must get beyond the logic of nationalism — fear of acting beyond the borders of our own countries; and we must get beyond the logic of miracles — recognizing that things won’t change overnight, but at the same time allowing ourselves to imagine a profound and complete change."

As far as the means of the water struggle go, this may have been best captured by Anna Ella Gomez, a Red Vida member from El Salvador: "The water movement must be like water: transparent and always in motion."

Jeff Conant is the International Research and Communications Coordinator for Food and Water Watch.