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Defeating the Multinationals Is Just the Start of the Problem for Anti-Globalization Movements

Bolivia ignited anti-globalization supporters by ousting the company that controlled its water. But that was just the beginning of its problems.

Set in a landscape of dry brown hills and arroyos flooded with dust, Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, is not rich in water. Seen from the air in early September, at the tail end of the southern winter, the land is brown and barren from the ridgetops to the river valleys. A warm wind blows dust in billowing clouds. Thousands of feet below the soaring, icy peaks of the altiplano to the west, and thousands of feet above the lush coca fields of the Chapare to the east and the Amazon to the north, Cochabamba enjoys the mildest climate in the country, but suffers from what geographers call "water stress," compounded here, as everywhere, by climate change.

Five years ago, Mount Tunari, the wind-sculpted escarpment that reaches to 14,000 feet above Cochabamba's streets, was capped in snow year-round. Today, the mountain -- an important source of water for local agriculture and groundwater recharge -- has snow only three months of the year.

Cochabamba's water struggles were catapulted into international awareness in 2000, when the city's residents, along with their rural and peri-urban neighbors, organized to oust the multinational giant Bechtel, which had privatized the city's water and hiked tariffs far beyond most people's means.

The fight has been recognized as one of the moments that ignited the grassroots water-justice movement that spread throughout the world. Since Cochabamba's water war, the issue has gained attention everywhere, from the halls of the United Nations, where 2005-2015 has been declared the International Decade of Action: Water for Life, to the pages of Fortune magazine,where corporate CEOs tell us that water is "the oil of the 21st century." Is water a human right to be provided by governments through public management, or is it a commodity to be protected by the free market and measured and metered by private business?

As ground zero of the water war, how the issue plays out in post-Bechtel Cochabamba is a barometer of how it may play out elsewhere. In the years since Bechtel left, the gains of the water war have been difficult to consolidate, and Cochabamba has become a shining example of the massive challenges for a dry municipality in a deeply impoverished country to manage its water in a way that is both equitable and efficient. The water-justice movement is clamoring for public control of water, but as Cochabamba is showing, in an era dominated by corporate control and private capital, this is no easy feat.

How the Problems Began

Cochabamba's privatization struggle started in 1996, when the mayor announced that the World Bank would relieve the city's water stress with a $14 million loan. The next year, World Bank offered $600 million in foreign debt relief. But both packages came with the condition that Cochabamba's water utility, widely reputed for corruption and inefficiency, be taken over by a private company. In 1999, the company, SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado), was bought out in a private bid, by Aguas de Tunari, majority controlled by San Francisco-based Bechtel.

Not long after, union leaders, environmental activists and rural-water stewards came together to form a coalition they called La Coordinadora Por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida, or simply La Coordinadora, to wrest back control of the water utility. What ensued -- street riots, hunger strikes, the occupation of the Central Plaza, the government's declaration of a state of siege, many wounded and one youth killed, and the eventual, ecstatic, ejection of Bechtel -- quickly passed into legend. Occurring only months after the Battle of Seattle, Cochabamba's water war became one of the most widely publicized stories of the anti-globalization movement -- a major triumph for the People, United.