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Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

Dear Readers:

Today we bring you a special edition of the Blog which took a good deal of work, by a team of people, to produce.

A decade ago the streets of Cochabamba were made known worldwide when the people of this city came out by the thousands to take back their public water system from Bechtel in the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt. In the days of that revolt and in the ten years since the Democracy Center has written a good deal about these events – Blogs, briefing papers, magazine articles, book chapters and more.

As the ten year anniversary of the Water Revolt approaches, we are going back to it, to dig deeper, and especially to look at a basic question – What difference did it make? We have already written a good deal about that, including this chapter from our recent book Dignity and Defiance and this briefing paper published last year. These writings have not been varnished versions of that history. They have included accounts of the ongoing problems with Cochabamba’s state-run water company along with the stories of the heroism and courage involved in taking it back a decade ago.

With this Blog we want to focus on a very specific piece of the post Water Revolt story, one of the lesser known: How the neighborhoods of Cochabamba’s impoverished south side have taken into their own hands the challenge of getting water.

To get that story we bring you an important new video that examines the issue and brings you right into the neighborhoods involved and with their leaders. We also have an extensive article, below. Because of it’s length, 15 minutes, we have broken the video into two parts. You can see part one by clicking on the screen above, or you can go directly to these links on YouTube:

Part One
Part Two

The production of the video and Blog post was a collective effort of the Democracy team but in particular Elizabeth Cooper, a student at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts who joined us for part of her summer to work on the project, along with Democracy Center stalwarts Leny Olivera and Aldo Orellana. I think you will see that they have offered up something truly worth watching and reading.

This is just the first installment of what we hope will be a series of reflective pieces on the legacy of the Water Revolt leading up to the ten year anniversary next April.

Jim Shultz

Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

Written by Elizabeth Cooper

In 2000 the attempt by the World Bank, the Bolivian government and the California-based Bechtel Corporation to privatize Cochabamba’s water system led to a powerful popular revolt. The state-owned water company, SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado) resumed control of the water system after Bechtel was expelled.

However, the successful revolt against privatization did not end the struggles over water access and control for the city. Unfortunately, SEMAPA’s continued problems of unaccountability, institutional corruption, and inefficiency have only increased the popular dissatisfaction with the state-owned model of water management.

Frustration with the failures of both models – corporate-run and state-run – has spawned strong interest in an alternative that challenges this state/private dichotomy. In fact, in the wake of Bechtel’s expulsion, calls for social control over the state company gave rise to “citizen representative” elections which were meant to bridge the gap between the company bureaucracy and the people. But when elections for those positions were held less than a year later public passions had dissipated and only four percent of the population voted.

The Search for Water in Cochabamba’s Impovershed South

In the Southern Zone of the city, however, where SEMAPA water service has never truly reached, “public/social control” over water implies a completely different level of accountability and participation. Many neighborhoods have developed water cooperatives, through which they have built the infrastructure of wells, pumps and piping to connect their households to the regional water grid. They have organized themselves into asambleas, consensus-based councils in which the entire community participates. These asambleas in turn elect Presidents, who are unpaid and whose service rotates among community members. The Presidents answer to the ultimate authority of the entire asamblea.

The Primero de Mayo Cooperative, in a neighborhood in the 9th District of Cochabamba, sits some six miles south of the city center. In its office, Don Zenón, the cooperative’s president, describes the organization’s roots. He tells us that in 1989, when the neighborhood of Primero de Mayo was still a small settlement, the neighbors together began developing a system to distribute the water. They discovered a spring from which water flowed at a rate of one half liter per minute. First they transported the water in old milk containers on the backs of donkeys. Then they built a container to capture the water from the spring. With the help of an NGO, they were able to build a larger tank to store the water. Later, between a small grant they received and the contributions of the residents themselves, they dug a well. When they dug the well, they needed electricity to make the pump work, and this too they brought themselves from a neighboring town, with each of the 45 residents contributing 50 dollars to lay the wires.

After they dug the first well, Don Zenón says that more and more people began to arrive. They continued expanding, digging more wells, until they had three. “The people kept arriving,” he says. “And with more people, there are more problems. A lot of things happened—the residents fought, money was lost, but we were able to maintain the system. After that came the idea of organizing a [formal water] cooperative. In the run up to the Water Revolt in 1999 we began to organize the cooperative, and it was created in 2000.” The Primero de Mayo cooperative now serves 1000 families.

The Villa Venezuela cooperative, also located on Cochabamba’s southern periphery, was born out of a similar process. The residents of what was then a small settlement each contributed money, and they partnered with a Catholic sisterhood to construct their first well. As the community grew, they sought other financing and continued digging wells. As the water system grew, so did the population. The system now consists of three elevated tanks and wells. Doña Silvia Martínez, one of the administrators of the cooperative, says that they now serve 270 families.

Like Villa Venezuela and Primero de Mayo, the majority of the Southern Zone is not served by SEMAPA. For neighborhoods without cooperative water systems, residents must buy their water from aguateros, the trucks that pass through, selling water of totally unguaranteed and generally dangerously low quality, at a price five to 10 times that of the cost of wat
er provided by SEMAPA in the city center. While water coming through SEMAPA’s system to homes in the center costs 2 or 3 Bs. ($.30 to $.40 USD) per cubic meter, the poor quality water Southern Zone residents are obliged to buy from the aguateros costs around 25 Bs. ($3.60 USD) per cubic meter.

Despite the facts that Southern Zone actually makes up nearly two thirds of the area of the municipality of Cochabamba, and that its population accounts for half of that of Cochabamba city, it is often treated like a marginal area and is traditionally attended to last, if at all, by municipal representatives. For Ramiro Balderrama, a researcher on the Southern Zone for Fundación Ghandi in Cochabamba City, the challenges that the residents of the Southern Zone confront, including those of lack of access to water, are indicative of this neglect. According to the World Health Organization, he says, an individual requires 50 liters of water a day to live in a dignified way. In times of Revolt or natural catastrophe, individuals need at least 20 liters a day to get by. In the Southern Zone, the average individual “gets by” on a permanent basis with 11 to 19 liters of water a day. “It is as though those in the Southern Zone have lived through two tsunamis, or two Iraq Revolts,” he explains.

In contrast, those who live in the center of the city enjoy easy enough access to use at least 50 liters of water per person per day, and wash their cars, bathe pets and water their gardens on top of that.

Even though they had been excluded from the benefits of SEMAPA’s supposedly public services, these neighborhoods were some of the most active in the resistance against the Bechtel privatization. Along with the government decision to turn SEMAPA over to the California giant came a new water law that would have required the wells they built to secure government permits and possibly be put under Bechtel’s control.

In the face of that threat, and given the resident’s history of organization and resistance, the privatization became an obvious target. Many of those southern neighborhoods are populated by ex-miners who moved as whole communities to Cochabamba when neoliberal reforms closed some of the mines in the country’s highlands and sought to break the miners’ unions.

For these Bolivians it has always been clear to them that “water is life.” It is not hard to understand why they would organize to challenge the idea that water, a public resource and a shared responsibility, would have to come to them through hands other than their own, and especially hands controlled by a corporation a hemisphere away.

An Alternative to the State-Run Company

In other parts of Cochabamba people struggled in the Water Revolt to bring the water back under the control of SEMAPA. But in the Southern Zone, they fought to return the water to a different kind of public control. They pushed not to return to the status quo of an ineffective state company. Rather, they fought against the possibility that Bechtel might be able to control and regulate the water they take from their own wells. They refused to let a foreign corporation override their own asambleas and they opposed a system of water for profit.

On this side of the Water Revolt, the water cooperatives are seen as the most viable option for solving issues of water access in the Southern Zone. As complaints of SEMAPA’s inefficiency and corruption mount and the cooperatives’ good reputation spreads, some foreign creditors are now disposed to lend to the cooperatives themselves rather than to the municipal company for development projects. Abraham Grandydier, the president of ASICA-SUR, which is an umbrella non-profit organization of water cooperatives in Cochabamba, explains that the birth of the water cooperatives came out of the idea that to deal with the systematic corruption they were seeing in SEMAPA, the people should be participating in every level of the administration—management, administration, finances, everything.

Even as the cooperatives are successful in developing the organization and infrastructure to connect more and more households in their neighborhoods to the systems, the shortage of good water is still a problem. Silvia Martínez explains that even as Villa Venezuela works with creditors from the EU and ASICA-SUR to increase the reach of the network, it does not want to install the system only to find that there is no decent water to deliver to the users. Right now the water in their system is salty. Most people use it mainly for washing, although some people drink it too, but always with the risk that their children or they themselves will get sick, she says.

Currently Villa Venezuela is negotiating with SEMAPA, hoping to have the company deliver better water in large quantities a few times a week to the cooperative, which would then distribute it through its tanks, explains Humberto Orellana Coca, the cooperative’s vice president. Villa Venezuela isn’t far out of SEMAPA’s reach—it is practically a matter of a few blocks, but up until this point extending the network to include the neighborhood has not been a high enough priority. When asked if Primero de Mayo would be interested in a similar arrangement with SEMAPA, the cooperative’s president Don Zenón says wryly that in Primero de Mayo they don’t believe in SEMAPA anymore, not even for that. “At first, we brought the managers and the mayor’s office here a number of times. They talked to us about miracles, so that we would believe them, and when they came, we prepared them all kinds of food, but afterwards when they went back to their offices they had already forgotten about us.”

Though the cooperatives have different visions about bringing the water to their communities, they share the certainty that once the water arrives, they will not hand over its administration to anyone else. For them, it works. Abraham Grandydier, the president of ASICA-SUR, explains how efficiently members resolve problems in the cooperative when the cooperative’s president is their neighbor, which not only drastically increases the accountability of the organization, but also facilitates open communication between the users and the administrators—who are essentially one and the same. All the policies and prices are common knowledge, having been decided upon communally in the asamblea. “It is decided, and then it is done,” says Don Zenón. Grandydier contrasts these familiar relationships in the communal model to the relationship between SEMAPA’s bureaucracy and its customers, in which the clients couldn’t tell you how much their water costs, much less to whom they pay their monthly fees. For members of the cooperatives, a public service is a service powered by their work, according to their decisions and carried out by their own members.


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