From Water Wars to Water Scarcity: Bolivia’s Cautionary Tale

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

When Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived at the new Uyuni airport last August and found no water running from the tap, he publicly reprimanded and promptly dismissed his Minister of Water. As it happened, the pipes were merely frozen. The incident underscores the critical—and highly symbolic—role of water in the politics of this landlocked Andean nation.

Water Wars

In April 2000, a popular struggle against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, ignited a chain of events that profoundly altered the nation’s political landscape. The Water War was precipitated when SEMAPA, Cochabamba’s municipal water company, was sold to a transnational consortium controlled by U.S.-based Bechtel in exchange for debt relief for the Bolivian government and new World Bank loans to expand the water system.

A new law allowed Bechtel to administer water resources that SEMAPA did not even control, including the communal water systems prevalent in the ever-expanding southern periphery and in the countryside, which had never been hooked into the grid. Local farmer-irrigators feared that “even the rain” collected and distributed for centuries by their associations would fall within Bechtel’s grasp.

These concerns, along with a 50% average increase in water rates for SEMAPA customers, prompted the formation of a broad alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middleclass professionals in opposition to water privatization. They were joined by the militant federation of coca growers from the Chapare, led by then labor leader Evo Morales, who lent his considerable expertise in organizing civic strikes, road blockades, and massive popular assemblies. Eventually, Bechtel was forced to abrogate its contract, return SEMAPA to public control, and withdraw its legal claim against the Bolivian government for $50 million in compensation.

This iconic struggle crystallized a growing demand for popular control of Bolivia’s natural resources, leading to the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents, and the subsequent election of Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party as a “government of the social movements.”  A second water revolt—this time by neighborhood organizations in the sprawling indigenous city of El Alto—ousted the French multinational Suez company from the recently-privatized La Paz-El Alto water district. Bolivia’s new constitution, enacted in 2009, proclaims that access to water is a human right and bans its privatization.

Outside Bolivia, the Water War helped to inspire a worldwide anti-globalization movement and provided a model for water-justice struggles throughout the Americas and beyond. The Bolivian government led the successful drive for UN recognition of water and sanitation as a human right in 2010 and is in the forefront of a new international campaign for a UN declaration against water privatization.

On the domestic front, as water-justice advocates look to Bolivia for successful alternative models to privatization, the implementation of these hard-won water rights has proved to be a significant challenge.

Water Rights

The Morales government has sought to develop a new institutional framework that positions the state as a direct protagonist in providing and regulating water and sanitation services.[1] The Water Ministry, created in 2006 to integrate the functions of water supply and sanitation, water resource management, and environmental protection, is the first of its kind in Latin America. It has a mandate to end water privatization, including the creation of a public water company to replace the temporary utility established for La Paz-El Alto after the exit of Suez.

The Water Ministry has been plagued by frequent reorganizations and institutional instability, with six changes in leadership since its creation. Critics charge that it operates more like a loose federation of sub-ministry fiefdoms than a coherent organization and suffers from overlapping jurisdictions with other cabinet ministries. Its functions also sometimes conflict with those of the departmental and municipal governments, which have significant water management responsibilities under Bolivia’s decentralized administrative structure.

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