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The Water Revolt

I. The Water Revolt 

In January 2000, just months after it took over control of the water system of Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba, a Bechtel Corporation subsidiary hit water users with enormous price increases. These increases forced some of the poorest families in South America to literally choose between food and water. The people came out into the streets in protest, and were met with violent repression by government troops that left one 17-year-old boy dead and more than a hundred people wounded. In April 2000, the people finally forced Bechtel to leave.

Today, more than 10 years later, global attention is focused on the revolt as a spark of a new wave of resistance to the economic policies of neoliberalism. To mark the 10-year anniversary of the uprising, the Democracy Center compiled a variety of information on the revolt, ranging from excerpts of our original dispatches from the streets during the revolt, to the chapter on the revolt from our 2008 book, Dignity and Defiance: Stories of Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, available here in English and in Spanish. This chapter is a complete history of the Water Revolt, including how it began, what happened in those days in the streets of Cochabamba, and what has happened afterward, including the lawsuit that Bechtel brought against Bolivia and subsequently dropped in the face of enormous international pressure.

1. Dispatches from the Streets – 2000

Excerpts from the Democracy Center’s complete dispatches from the Cochabamba water revolt, which was the winner of the 2000 Project Censored award for top story.  The unabridged blow-by-blow version of the dispatches is also available here.

2. Cochabamba’s Water Bills From BECHTEL

The direct proof of Bechtel’s continued mistruths about what it did in Bolivia – viewable copies of the water bills with Bechtel’s increases and a chart of the water rate hikes drawn directly from the water company’s computers.

3. The World Bank

The background on the World Bank’s role in the Bolivian water takeover, including exchanges of correspondence between The Democracy Center and World Bank officials.

4. In pictures

Tom Kruse’s photographs of the Water Revolt, from February – April 2000

II. Bechtel vs. Bolivia 

Eighteen months after it was kicked out of Bolivia, Bechtel and its co-investor, Abengoa of Spain, filed a $50 million legal demand against Bolivia before a closed-door trade court operated by the World Bank, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). For four years afterwards Bechtel and Abengoa found their companies and corporate leaders dogged by protest, damaging press, and public demands from five continents that they drop the case.

On January 19, 2006 Bechtel and Abengoa representatives traveled to Bolivia to sign an agreement in which they abandoned the ICSID case for a token payment of 2 bolivianos (30 cents). This is the first time that a major corporation has ever dropped a major international trade case such as this one as a direct result of global public pressure, and it sets an important precedent for the politics of future trade cases like it.

1. How Bechtel Lost its $50 Million Case Against Bolivia:

The people of the world join with Bolivia to beat back Bechtel in its legal demand for $50 million.

2. The Bechtel Corporation:

The background on Bechtel’s role in the Bolivian water takeover and its legal actions against Bolivia. Includes exchanges of correspondence between The Democracy Center and Bechtel officials and a link allowing you to write directly to Bechtel’s CEO.

3. International Citizen’s Petition to the World Bank:

In August 2002 more than 300 citizen groups from 41 different countries filed this petition, demanding that the Bechtel vs. Bolivia case be opened to public participation and scrutiny. Read the petition and see who endorsed it.

III. After the Water Revolt 

1. Water in Cochabamba After the Water Revolt: a Legend With Mixed Results

What happened in Cochabamba afterwards? What did the Water Revolt mean for the people and their thirst for clean, affordable water. In this paper, The Democracy Center takes an unvarnished look at the track record since April 2000. The paper is an excerpt from a chapter on the Water Revolt, in the Center’s book: Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (University of California Press, 2008).

2. Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

In this video and report, we focus on a very specific piece of the post-Water Revolt story, one that is not as well known: How the neighborhoods of Cochabamba’s impoverished south side have taken into their own hands the challenge of getting water.  We examine the issue up close by bringing you right into the neighborhoods involved and through interviews with those neighborhoods’ leaders.

IV. Other Resources

1. The Cochabamba Water Revolt and Its Aftermath

Jim Shultz’s complete chapter in the Center’s book: Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (University of California Press, 2008).  This in-depth analysis covers the gamut, from an explanation of the situation that led to the water privatization and the subsequent revolt through the case Bechtel brought against Bolivia, to what problems are left to be resolved years after the Revolt.

2. The Right to Water – Fulfilling The Promise:

A chapter by Jim Shultz from the book, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Latin America: From Theory to Practice. A look at the larger issue of access to water across the world and the Bolivian water revolt in the context of the struggle to secure water as a human right.

3. Bolivia’s War Over Water

A general chapter on the history, background, and consequences of the Water Revolt written for the Verso book ‘We Are Everywhere’.

4. Leasing the Rain – the video

Web site for the powerful film on the Bolivian water revolt aired in July 2002 by Bill Moyers on PBS in the U.S., produced by two good friends, David Murdoch and Bill Finnegan. Includes clips, facts, links and other well-organized resources.  You can also find the full transcript here.

5. “Leasing the Rain” –  the New Yorker article

Bill Finnegan’s masterful and complete April 2002 article on the water revolt, putting it into the context of the world’s growing water shortage.

6. Texts of the Coordinadora from the Revolt

A Collection of the Coordinadora’s communiqués and local reporting on the Coordinadora from the time of the Revolt.

7. The Network for Justice in Global Investment

When Bechtel brought its 50 million dollar suit against Bolivia, it did so through the mechanism of the World Bank’s International Court for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).  ICSID is the most widely used of the secretive investment tribunals that allow transnational corporations to make agreements, called Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs), that bypass domestic courts and sue governments behind closed doors. The Bechtel vs. Bolivia case is one of the only cases in which the corporate plaintiff was not awarded damages from the government it sued—and Bolivia’s victory in this case was due to the powerful movement that sprung up in protest, making Bechtel’s suit an untenable public relations disaster and forcing it to settle the dispute for a token payment of two Bolivianos.

This is an issue that has threatened the sovereignty of many countries around the world, as foreign corporations haul countries into secretive trade courts, suing them for millions for the crime of seeking to protect their environment or regain control of their natural resources.

The Network for Justice in Global Investment is a joint effort by citizens and organizations in a variety of countries to challenge this anti-democratic system of international investment rules.  On this website you will find a wide variety of resources to help you become more knowledgeable about these issues and to help you get involved in the global effort to bring democracy and real justice into the rules governing international investment.