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There’s Something About Water

Thomas Mc Donagh looks back on the water war that took place there fifteen years ago this month. With one eye cocked to Ireland, he talks about how water struggles lead to huge political changes.

Ireland and Bolivia have a lot in common. Both are relatively small countries, colonized for large parts of their history, slowly healing the wounds of the consequent rupture with their native languages and cultures. Both peoples share a self-deprecating character and indirect communication style – in which one can clearly detect the years of sidestepping colonial bosses. In another unfortunate parallel, Bolivia is undoubtedly the Ireland of South American soccer.

Most recently however the connection between Bolivia and Ireland is something as simple as water, and the transformational effect of this basic element of life on the politics of the two countries.

In the Spanish language, when you want to say ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ the equivalent term is ‘the drop of water that made the glass overflow’. There couldn’t be a more appropriate metaphor for what happened here in Bolivia 15 years ago this month, during Cochabamba’s famous ‘Water War’.

It was April 2000 when a city of half a million people – twice the size of Cork – joined together and literally shut itself down in general strike three separate times, with a common objective of taking their water system back from a foreign multinational. In a remarkable grassroots struggle the victory over the Bechtel Corporation became a story known all over the world. Less understood is how this struggle over water radically transformed the politics of a country in ways that have been enormous and enduring.

The echoes of Bolivia in the current Irish water conflict are clear. Firstly, the struggle has awoken a sleeping giant – mobilising people in ways that until recently seemed impossible. And, how the struggle plays out may have equally enormous and enduring affects on Irish political culture.

There’s something about water that just gets people at both a rational and visceral level. We rely on it to meet our most basic needs wherever we are in the world. And when people begin to mess with it – polluting water sources, using it for mining or fracking, or turning it in to just other ‘product’ on the market – people get angry, real angry.

What in Ireland in 2015 is being called austerity, in Bolivia 15 years ago was known as structural adjustment: cuts upon more cuts, and a relentless drive to privatise public services and infrastructure – often without democratic consent or stopping to question the conditions under which national debt was accumulated.

In Ireland it’s the ECB and IMF in the background calling the shots; in Bolivia it was the World Bank that was insisting on water privatisation. The Denis O’Brien of Bolivia’s water conflict was played by the Bechtel Corporation, a giant Californian engineering conglomerate.

Bolivians activists didn’t just straight off denounce “structural adjustment” when the water war began, just as Irish activists didn’t begin talking about the injustices of “austerity” at the start of their water conflict. Both struggles, however, pushed the tip of a concealed iceberg above the surface just long enough for regular people – who never normally think of themselves as activists – to get a clear and undeniable glimpse at how the economic system works against their interests.

Most of the time, this system operates below the surface, with corruption and corporate encroachment into our democratic spaces only on the radar of activists and specialist researchers. The ship hits the iceberg when suddenly the system’s mechanics are revealed so that many more people see it for what it is. That’s when we have a chance to articulate that what they see above the surface is propped up by something much bigger that they need to be worried about. Struggles like these ones over water give us the ear of the general public in ways that most of the time we only imagine we have. As Oscar Olivera, the trade unionist leader of Coordinadora del Agua in Cochabamba during the water revolt pointed out, “we always repeated those slogans ‘death to the World Bank’, ‘death to the IMF’, ‘down with Yankee imperialism’ but I believe that [the water war was] the first time that the people understood in a direct way.”

So a key lesson from these water struggles is that often the place where we accrue popular power sufficient to challenge the system comes less from the situations that we carefully plan, and more from spotting the right moments – usually provoked by our adversaries – that reveal the systemic injustices and their impacts on ordinary people. At these moments, new activists emerge from the shadows of a normally disengaged public.

According to Maria Eugenia Flores, a young activist coming of age at the time of the water revolt “that historic moment in Cochabamba allowed me to see clearly what was happening in my country, to understand the politics of water, privatisation, the struggle to defend this resource and especially to get to know other people like me who were waking up and opening their eyes to the injustices that we were living through.”

At these moments, the possibility of things changing utterly suddenly seems within reach. In Bolivia after the water revolt, a set of political parties that had rotated the presidency for decades vanished from the map in less than five years, along with the polices that had driven the country’s economics. As soon as it became clear that they could be challenged and beaten, people lost their fear and traditional political powers and structures came tumbling down. Instead of being ironclad, they turned out to be papier maché.

In Ireland many of the political power arrangements that people deem to be set in stone may well turn out to be just as thin and vulnerable as they were in Bolivia – and are proving to be in places like Greece and Spain. As Brendan Ogle, trade unionist and spokesperson for the Right2Water campaign has said about the achievements of the movement in Ireland so far: “Until now people felt alone; they felt that what the Troika want, what the IMF want, what the ECB want is what the government will deliver, not what the citizens want. They now know that they’re not alone.”

There’s something about water and the ways that it unites people in common cause that can expand peoples’ horizons as to the possibilities of affecting broader social change. And while moments of victory – when edifices crumble – are unpredictable, fleeting and rare, when they do happen, we sometimes find that all is changed, changed utterly. As Maria Eugenia Flores said, “in the face of so much injustice, we stood up and lost our fear.”