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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.

High up in the Andean valley, 8,000 feet above sea level, lies Cochabamba, Bolivia. The name, Khocha Pampa, from the indigenous Quechua, means swampy plain. Once a lush and verdant land, its waters have come under pressure from a variety of sources. The first was privatization.

This week the Feria del Agua, a water festival and fair, marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that fought off privatization. Events to celebrate kicked off on Thursday, April 15 with a 4,000-person parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Over the next three days at the Fabriles, local groups, area residents and attendees from countries worldwide, ranging from Honduras to Italy, from Uruguay to Spain, shared information about how they self-organize. The Fabriles is an organizing space for workers and was a pivotal space for organizing meetings during the water wars in 2000.

The Water Wars

In 1995, World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin predicted, "Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water."

And the World Bank would know. In 1997, it refused to renew $600 million dollars worth of foreign debt relief, unless Bolivia privatized its water services. So the Bolivian government, then under the leadership of Hugo Banzer (who was dictator of Bolivia from 1971 to 1978), put the municipal agency Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA), which had previously controlled water, up for auction.

On September 3, 1999, in a closed-door meeting, the government signed a lucrative contract with Aguas de Tunari, a multinational consortium of companies and a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation. Aguas de Tunari was the sole bidder, won the contract and was henceforth to provide water to all the residents of Cochabamba.

Subsequently, on October 29, 1999, the government passed law 2029 (Drinking Water and Sanitation Law) to regulate drinking water and sewage disposal. Law 2029 stated that water not only in Cochabamba but also in the surrounding agricultural areas would be provided, that is, privatized, by Aguas del Tunari. Irrigation waters had never been under the auspices of the municipal agency SEMAPA and thus should have been exempt. Peasants relied on free access to them in order to survive. So this privatization outraged many peasants living in the area surrounding Cochabamba.

Moreover, when Bechtel took over the water services, they increased rates by 35 percent to 50 percent. Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America. Families earning on average $100 per month were suddenly faced with $20 per month water bills. The impact on the population was immediate and drastic.

As a result of their dire situation because of these numerous changes, individuals formed La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (The Coalition Defense of Water and Life). The Coordinadora included peasant farmers, whose subsistence depended on access to free water, environmentalists and factory workers, led by Oscar Olivera, a rank-and-file delegate, union organizer and leader.

Protests erupted the week after the rate hikes, with a broad spectrum of people participating: factory workers, peasants, housewives, street vendors, students, kids. Between January and April 2000, the people shut down the city on three separate occasions with general strikes and road blocks.

On March 22, 2000, the Coordinadaro held an unofficial referendum in which 96 percent of 55,000 voters demanded the government end the contract with Aguas del Tunari. Government officials responded that there was nothing to negotiate.

In April, demonstrators took over the central plaza in Cochabamba.