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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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Codaste 22 Abril, one of the groups within ASICA Sur, organizes in the southern Cochabamba district 14. Filemon Chipana, President of Codaste 22 Abril, said "We are organizing there and laying pipes, drilling for water."

Regardless of whether water is state-run or community-organized, one serious impediment that plagues both is funding. Internal funds are limited and external funding remains relatively scarce.

The Challenge of Climate Change

In addition to the calamity of financing, which makes the improvement of access to potable water and of sanitation difficult, climate change is providing new challenges to water availability. The water table of Cochabamba has dwindled rapidly over the past decade due to population growth and global warming.

Bolivia is also home to 25 percent of the world's tropical glaciers. But these are melting at alarming rates, causing water sources to retreat.

Last week, in neighboring Peru, with which Bolivia shares the Andes mountain range, a massive chunk of glacier, measuring 1,640 feet by 656 feet, fell into a lake, unleashing a tsunami with a wave up to 75 feet high that washed away villages and people. Approximately 70 percent of the world's tropical ice fields are in Peru, which have been melting at alarming rates due to global warming.

Between 1975 and 2006, glaciers in the Cordillera Real, a mountain range in the Andes, lost 48 percent of their volume. In the Chacaltaya mountain range, once reknowned for its ski resorts, the Chacaltaya glacier, which provided water to La Paz, vanished in the last year. The Illimani, a glacier on a mountain that has the same name, is also disappearing. As much as 30 percent of La Paz's water supply comes from glacial melt.

Scientists predict that at current rates, glaciers will have melted within 20 years. While climate reparations will be a major focus of discussions at this week's People's
World Conference on Climate Change
, Bolivian villagers in particular are requesting compensation for the glaciers melting.

The water wars in Bolivia thus evidence at once the frontlines of neoliberal privatization efforts a decade ago, which are undoubtedly far from over, and the frontlines of climate change currently, with which this week’s upcoming People’s World Conference on Climate Change will grapple.

Tina Gerhardt is a freelance journalist and academic. Her writings have appeared in In These Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and on thenation.com and salon.com. In December, she wrote daily dispatches about the UNFCCC and climate justice actions in Copenhagen. In April, she covered the UNFCCC preparatory meeting for the COP 16 in Mexico.