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Water Wars: How One City's Fight Against a Multinational Ignited a Movement Battling Water Privatization

Cochabama, Bolivia was ground zero 10 years ago in the fight against water privatization, but the threat still persists across the world.

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The next day, April 6, 2000, when leaders of the Coordinadora went to meet with the governor at his office, they were arrested. Meanwhile, protests had spread to other cities, such as La Paz and Potosí.

On April 8, 2000, President Banzer declared a state of siege, that is, a suspension of constitutional rights. In power were President Banzer, Governor Walter Cespedes and Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa. (All three trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.) Curfews were enforced, freedom of the press was blocked, gatherings of more than four persons were banned and warrantless searches were conducted.

Eventually, on April 10, Olivera and government officials signed a contract annulling the contract with Aguas del Tunari. Control of water was turned over to La Coordinadora, which demanded that law 2029 be repealed. The state of siege was ended on April 13, 2000.

Aguas del Tunari brought the matter to the International Centre for Settlement of Disputes (ICSID), the arbitration body of the World Bank, accusing the Bolivian government of breach of contract, but eventually settled with the Bolivian government out of court and agreed not to seek monetary compensation for the annulled contract.

Hard Work Still Remains

To be sure the water wars were enormously successful. They brought together communities across previously existing geographic or class boundaries. Rural campesinos worked together with urban factory workers to protest the privatization of irrigation waters, and uprisings took place all over the country.

The water wars thwarted attempts to privatize water in Bolivia, called attention to attempts to privatize water elsewhere and led to an increasingly widespread discourse on water as a basic right, part of the commons. As Vandana Shiva puts it in the introduction to Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia, "[...] reclaiming the commons is the political, economic and ecological agenda for our times."

Shiva also mentions the worldwide impact of Cochabamba, discussing how it was inspirational for work in India against Suez's attempts to privatize the water of the Ganges River. As Jim Schultz, who is executive director of the Democracy Center in Bolivia and who broke the story of the Cochabamba water wars for U.S. and Canadian audiences, said: "It certainly had an impact on the debate about water privatization. After the water wars in Cochabamba, people challenged water privatization from Argentina to Atlanta."

After the water wars, water prices in Cochabamba returned to their rates prior to 2000. The Coordinadora returned control of water to SEMAPA, which community leaders run.

Nonetheless, much work remains to be done in order to increase access to water. While 90 percent of the northern and central regions of Cochabamba have regular access to clean water, fewer than 50 percent of the southern barrios do. Moreover, their costs of water, since they acquire it from trucks that distribute water, typically run much higher than the costs for their wealthier northern counterparts, for whom it is delivered directly into the house through pipes.

The population of southern Cochabamba is incredibly impoverished. It consists mostly of immigrants from other parts of Bolivia who moved to Cochabamba over the past 40 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, due to droughts and land reforms, many peasants moved to the city from agricultural areas, especially those surrounding La Paz and Sucre. Subsequently, in the 1980s, through the liberalization of industries under Jeffrey Sachs' proposed New Economic Plan (NEP) and decree DS 21060, mines laid off massive numbers of workers. These workers from cities such as Oruro and Potosi migrated to Cochabamba.

The residents have self-organized, establishing the Association of the Community Water Systems of the South (La Associacíon de Sistemas Comunitarios de Agua del Sur - ASICA Sur) in 2004. Non-politically aligned, ASICA Sur is an umbrella group for various cooperatives, organizations and committees. Securing a loan from the EU, ASICA-Sur has been digging for water sources, building water towers and constructing pipes from the water towers to distribute water.