Colombians Build Support for a Constitutional Referendum for Water

Colombia’s popular movement to reform the nation’s constitution by including explicit protection for the human right to water took a giant leap forward last week.

Colombia’s popular movement to reform the nation’s constitution by including explicit protection for the human right to water took a giant leap forward this week. The proposed reform suffered a near-setback when members of Congress, at the behest of Chief Executive Álvaro Uribe, proposed sweeping changes to the text of the reform. But on May 26, after intervention by a representative of the popular movement, the Congress voted 66 to 26 to sustain the original text of the reform, allowing it to move forward through the congressional process.

At the Second International Forum for Water and the Environment in Bogota last week, hundreds of representatives of the country’s diverse movements for the right to water gathered to criticize the government’s attempt to block constitutional reform and to strategize the way forward for the country’s growing democracy movement. Following the Forum, Rafael Colmenares, Director of Ecofondo, an umbrella organization made up of 125 NGOs and social movement groups, delivered a letter to the congress expressing concern over its recent move to derail the popular effort toward constitutional reform.

The House of Representatives’ acceptance of this intervention was received with surprise and jubilation. A news release from EcoFondo called the news "unexpected and hopeful," and continued, "The act constitutes an unusual manifestation of autonomy and independence by the congress, which is refreshing for democracy in Colombia,"

Years of Popular Mobilizations

The process of constitutional reform began in 2006, when environmental groups and public sector workers simultaneously began expressing the need to address the human right to water in the country’s magna carta. The popular initiative came in response to deteriorating access to safe water throughout the country and a wave of privatization that swept the water sector over the past decade. A diagnostic conducted by the Defensoría del Pueblo, the government’s human rights agency, revealed that at least nine million Colombians have no sustained access to safe drinking water and twenty million are at high risk of going without. Constitutional reforms in Uruguay (2004), Ecuador (2008), and Bolivia (2009) all grew out of popular mobilizations to demand the human right to water and counter efforts at privatization; the Colombian process has been largely inspired by these successes.

By 2007, progressive forces had united to begin the formal process of constitutional reform, which requires the collection of one-and-a-half million signatures. A newly established popular assembly made up of diverse groups and affected people drafted a five-point proposal to be included in the constitution, and built mass mobilization to collect the requisite signatures. During 2007 and 2008, the National Committee for the Defense of Water and Life – which symbolically takes its name from the movement that ejected Bechtel Corporation from Bolivia in 2000 – engaged in a massive popular mobilization to gather signatures and educate the public about water issues. Beyond the traditional tactics of canvassing names at shopping centers, concerts, and other public venues, the National Committee organized intrepid journeys by boat down all of the country’s major rivers, including the Cauca, the Magdalena, and the Amazon, to reach communities far removed from most national political processes. These remote communities are some of the most gravely affected by the health problems associated with lack of access to safe water, and the response was overwhelming.

By October of last year, having gained wide recognition, the Commission delivered over two million signatures, forcing the congress to address the issue. The announcement from Ecofondo at the time was buoyant: "Walking across an enormous blue fabric like a river, which minutes before had been carried jubilantly through the streets, a crowd of children delivered packages of signatures to the delegates of the Congress. The scene was set: everything blue like water, green like the mountains, white like the sky; amidst tears, hugs, emotional words, song and dance, we delivered 294 packages containing over two million signatures; but more than signatures, these packages contained the hope of millions of Colombians who have taken this initiative as their own."

For the popular movements, the mobilization itself is half the battle. Said Javier Marquez, director of Penca de Sabila, one of the NGOs that makes of the National Committee for the Defense of Water and Life, "the most important aspect of this process is the conjoining of forces from different sectors to unite in a single platform – the five points – building a wide front that consists of unions, environmentalists, women’s organizations, community groups, public service workers, consumer advocates, the indigenous movement and the Afro-Colombian communities. We’ve shown that we can build a united front around the question of water as a common good, linking water with wider struggles such as the struggle for human rights, economic and environmental justice, and so on."

ImageThe Reform Nearly Scuttled in Congress

Despite wide popular support, earlier this month members of Congress delivered an entirely bowdlerized version of the reform proposal. The reforms proposed by the Colombian government would have eliminated the establishment of the human right to potable water, the recognition of water as a common good and a public trust, special protections for ecosystems essential to the hydrological cycle, and impediments to the privatization of water management, water delivery, and sewage. Further, the proposed modifications attempted to add to the constitution the statement that "waters that are born and die in the same property are private," thus imposing an exception to the principle that all waters are to be treated as common good for public use. The revised document also adjusted the proposed minimum lifeline supply of water, falsely suggesting that it was oriented strictly toward the poor, and maintaining that this service would be provided through "the private management of public utilities."

The letter delivered to congress on May 26 addressed the changes directly, saying, "The modifications proposed by the First Commission of the House of Representatives of the Republic run completely counter to the original spirit in which the Referendum was written; these modifications serve to reinforce privatization and to deepen the inequity of Colombian communities’ access to water."

The referendum effort was further threatened in March of this year, when President Uribe announced that he would seek popular and congressional support for his own constitutional reform that would allow him to run for a third term in office. Members of the National Committee for the Defense of Water and Life expressed a clear belief that part of the President’s intention, beyond seeking unprecedented executive power, was precisely to scuttle the water referendum.

"He did this to confuse the issues and complicate the matter," said Colmanares.

For some months it appeared that the two referendums would move through the congress hand-in-hand; currently the congressional schedule makes this unlikely.

Uribe was first elected in 2002 and again in 2006 following a constitutional review that opened the way for his re-election. He enjoys a 70 percent popularity rating, despite widely alleged ties to paramilitary groups, continuing violence that has the nation in a state of civil war, and the confessions of a former member of congress who is now serving a four-year jail sentence for receiving favors from the government to support the 2006 constitutional review.

Rafael Colmenares noted that, aside from directly challenging the water reform, Colombia’s right-wing media engendered confusion and disinformation. "The news reports ‘a referendum about water,’ rather than a referendum about ‘the fundamental human right to water,’" he said. "They also insist that we are demanding unlimited free water for everyone, which is not true."

Colombia’s Odyssey

Speaking at the Forum in Bogota, Colmenares offered an eloquent assessment of the current moment, comparing the referendum process to the Odyssey of Ulysses: "After delivering the Trojan horse and emerging victorious at Troy, the gods put many obstacles in Ulysses’ path on the return home. For Colombians, the delivery of the referendum to Congress was the conquest of Troy; the process that begins now is the long and arduous journey home."

"The great challenge," Colmenares said, " is not whether or not the referendum is passed, but how it is passed, and the process of popular mobilization that allows us to build democracy from the bottom up."

"During the last year we saw the congress say that this was not an important issue, something that came in through the back door. They looked at us as foreign to the political process. This year the congress realized that to deny to take our proposal seriously would come with a high political cost."

International water rights advocates attending the forum in Bogota offered strong support for the reform process, and criticized the government’s effort to derail it. Two hundred organizations from 35 countries signed onto a letter of support; Anil Naidoo of the Council of Canadians, speaking at the Forum in Bogota said, "Passing this referendum would put Colombia at the forefront of the movement for democracy and the human right to water." Referring to constitutional reforms recently enacted in Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia, all propelled by the popular movement for the right to water, Naidoo said, "Suppressing it would make Colombia the first country to block this movement for democracy. When the government does not support the will of the people, its legitimacy must be questioned."

The letter delivered to congress, which appeared to deliver a striking blow to the government’s efforts, was also signed and distributed by members of the Red VIDA – the InterAmerican Network for the Defense of the Human Right to Water – a grassroots coalition made up of water advocates from seventeen countries, many of whose members were present in Bogota last week following the network’s biennial hemispheric assembly.