This April is the 15th anniversary of the Cochabamba Water War. It was an epic chapter in Bolivian history, where a united people caused the expulsion of a powerful transnational corporation that had privatized their water. The story of the water war as a struggle of the people against a corporate Goliath is one that inspires movements all across the world that are fighting to reclaim their water and natural resources from corporate control and destruction; and for a change in the model of democracy where only a few have power.
The Cochabamba Water War has drawn the attention of dozens of organizers, intellectuals, artists, researchers, journalists and academics from many parts of the world, who have visited the city to deepen their understanding of what happened here in April of 2000. And the story of the battle has been told in many documentaries as The Corporation or Blue Gold; different media outlets like the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian and Democracy Now!; and in dozens of alternative media outlets. The story inspired the film ‘Even the Rain,’ which was made in the streets of Cochabamba.
There is no doubt that this historic event has left an important legacy in Bolivia and the world; about the importance of reclaiming water from corporate control, but also about people reclaiming decision-making power over their own lives. Yet still people wonder ‘What happened in Cochabamba, and in Bolivia, after the Water War?’, and ‘What’s Bolivian water policy like now?’ These are the questions that the principal actors in the struggle of 2000 sought to answer this month at the 15th anniversary celebration in Cochabamba.
The Water War and its Legacy
The history of the Water War is characterized by a simple and powerful narrative: in 1997 the World Bank gave Bolivia a loan to improve the water system in its largest cities, including Cochabamba, in exchange for privatization of those water systems. In September of 1999 the government handed over Cochabamba’s water, without any public consultation, to a consortium led by California engineering giant Bechtel Corporation, which shortly after raises water rates enormously, unleashing a popular rebellion unprecedented. In April of 2000, after the government (led by an ex-dictator) had imposed a state of siege on the city and left a young man dead (Victor Hugo Daza) and dozens injured, Bechtel had to leave Bolivia.
Oscar Olivera, spokesperson for the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life (a group of organizations that led the rebellion of April 2000) says that for many people this struggle meant “the reclaiming of their water as a fundamental resource, but also the reclaiming of their dignity, confidence, and capacity to organize and shape their own futures themselves.” Indeed, after the Water War Bolivia saw a wave of popular resistance against the neoliberal policies imposed on the country during the 80s and the resulting corporate takeover of natural resources, as well as calling for the building of a new Constituent Assembly to design a new model of country and democracy.
At the international level the Water War also left an important legacy – it was a benchmark for the anti-globalization movement of the time, and it helped to unmask the global corporate strategy of water privatization. The symbol of the water war has inspired other movements around the world that are defending water as a common good and not a product to be profited from.
This concept of water as a common good was later adopted in the new Bolivian Constitution, which enshrines access to water as a fundamental right, and assigns to the State the task of providing it. At the international level, in June 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised the basic human rights to water and sanitation in a resolution.
And after the Water War… What?
In order to respond to that question Oscar Olivera, together with others involved in the issue, organized several days of events remembering and reflecting on the Water War, 15 years on. The events also sought to explore the water situation in Cochabamba city, as well as regional and national water and environmental policy.
It’s important to remember that even though the Water War had consequences that weren’t necessarily directly linked with water, such as the questioning of the economic model and politics of the time, it did have a practical and clear mandate: to bring quality water to the half of the population that didn’t have access in their homes, and to build an efficient and transparent public water provider administrated by the people.
In this sense, one conclusion is that the objective of the Water War wasn’t reached. Today, just like in 2000, five out of every ten families don’t have access to public water. They manage by buying tanks of water or through community water systems managed and financed by the people themselves, without state support. Often this water is not of optimal quality, and its price is higher than that of the state water company. For several years there have been attempts to find structural solutions for the water scarcity in Cochabamba. The solutions have not been found for various reasons – amongst these are the politics and corruption in the state water company SEMAPA, as well as in MISICUNI, an infrastructural mega-project which was supposed to guarantee a regular water supply for the region several years ago.
Water and Extractivism
During the days of reflection organized by the Water War actors, there was also space for reflection on national policies around water. The conclusions were not that heartening. Despite the government’s claim that around 80% of the population has access to potable water, the current model of development is destroying water sources around the country.
According to the Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information (CEDIB), this development model is based on high-intensity, high-volume natural resource extraction, the products of which are destined for export. This model prioritizes water for use by the mining, hydrocarbon and industrial agriculture sectors – and there is no law on water use that echoes the Constitution and defends water as a human right for consumption and small-scale agricultural use.
Oscar Campanini, a researcher at CEDIB, says that “water, before being a common good or a human right as it is in the Constitution, in reality is unfortunately a commodity for extractive activities”. At least half of all water sources overlap with mining concessions. Even though mining laws require an authorization for water use in exploitation areas, in reality mining companies use all the water they want. In terms of hydrocarbon extraction, 80 percent of oil contracts are in areas where there are rivers, which the oil companies can take freely. Agro-industrial water use is also regulated, but in practice never enforced.
These industrial activities don’t only use water as an input for production, but they also pollute water sources with heavy metals and chemicals, leaving a lasting water footprint and threatening water access for future generations. According to CEDIB, San Cristobal mineral mine alone (the largest in the country) uses 43 million liters of water a day, enough to provide for a city of 250,000 people, nearly half of the population of Cochabamba city.
Something which currently concerns the government is the drop in international prices of primary materials, which has motivated them to intensify extractive activities in the country. Since 2013 the Bolivian government has begun to explore the possibility of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the south of the country, with the help of Argentinean company YPF (who has signed a big shale gas deal with Chevron in Argentina). It’s clear the government hasn’t taken into account the impact this form of extraction can have on water. On top of this are the plans to build a nuclear energy plant, which also would need massive quantities of water and could have severe environmental impacts.
Reclaiming the Water Agenda of April 2000
Evidently a general evaluation of the objectives of the Water War doesn’t give us a very optimistic panorama. Although the political climate now is different to 15 years ago (product of this historical event), there is an undeniable crisis in water policy and management, at both local and national levels. In the face of this reality, participants in Water War anniversary events made a call-out to reclaim the water agenda once again. Carlos Crespo, environmentalist and academic at the University of San Simón, says that the state has failed and that it “is necessary to break the centralist control of water of the state, and return the discussion and the water management to the people – this was the spirit of the Water War.”
Oscar Olivera echoed that it is time that the people stand up once again and retake not only the water agenda from April 2000, but also the general principals of this struggle to “reconstitute”, according to his words, “those spaces where we dialogue, discuss, propose and decide…and take once again into our hands, the building and the enjoyment of a dignified life”.
Translated into English by Sian Cowman