Water Conflict Mounts in Ecuador

Powerful interests are colliding in Ecuador, and at the center of it all is water.  The South American country is trying to decide who has the rights to water, who will control it, how will it be developed, and who will benefit.  While a series of public consultations is part of the picture, political negotiations are being overshadowed by an upwelling of determined protest.

The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.

The Ecuadoran Constitution, approved in 2008, states, ‘The human right to water is fundamental and unrenounceable. Water is a strategic national asset for the public use, inalienable, irrevocable, unappropriable and essential for life.’ (my translation)  Many people in Ecuador feel that this means that water can not be privatized, but can only be managed by the public authorities.

Nevertheless, several multinational corporations have acquired concessions to provide water services.  For example, in Guayaquil a foreign owned company, Interagua, received a concession to develop the drinking water supply in 1991, funded by an Inter-American Development Bank loan.  Interagua continues to make profits, but despite the residents paying and paying on that loan, thousands of people in Guayaquil still don’t have potable water service.

In other areas, international companies have received concessions to construct reservoirs for electricity generation and to transfer water to other regions, to the detriment of local and downriver people.  In other cases, mining operations have been allowed to use and contaminate water sources.

Impunity Watch says, “Forty-five percent of water resources have been privatized through legal concessions, but one percent of those using water resources consume sixty-four percent of the water available and eighty-six percent of Ecuadorians consume just thirteen percent of the country’s water.”

The result has been years of protests organized by the historically marginalized indigenous groups and campesino organizations.  And not the harshly-worded-letter variety of protest, either, as they see a resource essential for their livelihoods, water, taken out of their hands and given to wealthy businesses.  The response has involved thousands of people blocking roads, marching in the streets and rioting, and there have been violent confrontations that have resulted in arrests and even death.

Protesters blocking the road last week.

Protesters blocking the road last week.

Over the last year, the government has been working on passing a new water bill, the Hydraulic Resources Law, which would, as I understand it, allow the concessions to stand, codify privatization of water rights and centralize decision-making at the state level, possibly further excluding traditional local water-management structures from the process.  In the last weeks an estimated 10,000 protesters have descended on the capitol city of Quito, trying to stop the bill as it comes before the national assembly.  They argue that the Law would violate the constitutional guarantee that water is a public asset, as well as the constitutional guarantee that environmental and ecosystem interests be preserved.

The protesters have had some measure of success, as the bill has not come up for a vote.  Just this week, a proposal to postpone consideration until after a public consultative process of three to six months, which many feel is intended to diffuse and undermine the protests without offering real hope for change, failed.  The political maneuvering continues, but at the very least the indigenous and campesino groups are being seen as a force to be reckoned with.

Control of natural resources has long, perhaps always, been a source of contention in poor and developing countries.  To utilize the resource to the benefit of anyone, public or private, takes money to construct infrastructure and develop processes.  If the local governments can’t afford it, outside capital fills the gap.  But that leaves local people with fewer resources and less control over their lives.  As frustration, anger, and in the case of a fundamental need like water, fear, grows, people look for ways to get control back.  The form that struggle takes, and how successful it is, varies by location.

In Ecuador the struggle continues, with much bitterness on both sides.  Water is a life and death issue, and here at least, traditionally powerless people are not backing down.


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