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Bolivia's Victory Stopping Water Privatization a Decade Ago Paved The Way For European Nations To Do The Same Now

The revolt of Cochabamba was celebrated by social movements because it was the first blockage in a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of privatization.

There is a photo of the Bolivian water war that is almost as iconic as the unknown hero who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square. It shows a solitary indigenous woman, with plaited hair and pleated skirt, launching a slingshot against an implacable line of armed police.It symbolises the valiant resistance of the people of Cochabamba who succeeded in April 2000 in throwing out the Californian multinational company Bechtel that had privatised their water and pushed rates sky-high.

Yet it also captures the sense of the overwhelming power structures that resistance to water privatisation faced. For the year 2000 marked the height of a wave of water privatisation across the developing world, when almost  all institutions from the World Bank to the IMF to the European Union argued that only the private sector could hope to bring clean water to everyone. The revolt of Cochabamba was celebrated by social movements because it was the first blockage in a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of privatisation.

Ten years after the Water War, with the benefit of hindsight, it increasingly looks like Bolivia's water war was not a solitary heroic act, but marked the very beginnings of a turning point on water privatisation. 

Privatisation roll-back

At the beginning of this year, Paris overturned water privatisation and remunicipalised its water utility. This was deeply symbolic as Europe's largest private water utilities are headquartered in France.Then in August, Bolivia succeeded in pushing through a UN resolution supporting water as a human right, which while it does not prevent privatisation does put the emphasis on water as a human right than a source of corporate profit. Then the latest evidence came this summer, as the EU announced a new fund of €40 million Euros to support “non-profit partnerships” of water and sanitation utilities in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Olivier Hoedeman, a long time researcher and activist on water issues and member of TNI and Corporate European Observatory's Water Justice project explained the significance of the new ACP-EU Water Partnerships fund: “This fund sounds  innocuous, but it actually marks a huge departure from the water policy of the EU. For ten years, the  EU approach was dominated by the belief that only by involving private sector could you deliver any improvements in water sector in developing countries. The public sector was completely ignored as it was seen as old-fashioned, outdated and uninteresting, even though the public sector continued to be the predominant supplier of water and sanitation worldwide.”

Before 2010, the EU's deeply entrenched neoliberal view on water was evident in the launch of its water facility in 2003, which clearly stated its intention to expand the role of private sector involvement in water, and specifically to help EU private sector water companies expand into developing countries. EU Water commissioner, Louis Michel backed up these ideological convictions with considerable cash, investing one million Euros per year into the Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) as well as setting up its European equivalent, the  Private Sector Enabling Environment Facility (PSEEF)  with a budget of 20 million Euros. At a state level, many European members conditioned aid to water projects on the involvement of the private sector.  

EU turn around

Against this background, setting up a scheme specifically to support non-profit partnerships marks new ground and a major shift of emphasis. Emanuele Lobina, researcher for the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) based at the University of Greenwich, London says: “This is the first time that a major donor like the EU is ring-fencing a significant amount of money to fund capacity development exclusively in the water sector of a given region. Its insistence on supporting non-profit partnerships means that available financial and human resources devoted to capacity development in the ACP water and sanitation sector will not be diverted to pursue commercial gain”

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