Return to Cochabamba

Eight Years Later, the Bolivian Water War Continues


colorful photo of a demonstration, protestors shoutingReuters The 2000 protests in Bolivia against Bechtel put the issue
of water privatization in the international spotlight.

On first sight, you might think nothing much happens in the Cochabamba Valley, and not much ever will. The temperate fertile valley, nestled in the Andean foothills, feels unrelentingly tranquil with its flowered plazas, colonial terraces, and chatty street vendors. Evidence that this Bolivian city of less than one million inhabitants is a global reference point for courageous citizen activism is limited to a few faded wall markings that remind visitors what the people of Cochabamba will never forget: ¡El Agua es Nuestra, Carajo! (The Water is Ours, Damn It!)

Just over eight years ago, these humble Bolivians said a simple word – No – to a not-so-simple enemy: Bechtel, one of the world’s largest corporations. The San Francisco-based behemoth had recently privatized the region’s water systems. Then the people rose up, protested, and Bechtel crumbled. What became known as the “Water War” put water on the political map, inspiring a decade of battles on behalf of Earth’s precarious supply.

But the international spotlight soon faded, and what’s happened in the 8,000-foot-high city since April 2000 has gone largely unnoticed. The victory over Bechtel gave the people of Cochabamba the unexpected responsibility of creating and sustaining viable alternatives to the privatization they so vehemently opposed – which turned out to be a whole other battle unto itself.

The Water War

In the 1980s and ’90s, Bolivia became the testing ground for the Washington Consensus, a set of economic policies aimed primarily at opening markets and transferring state-owned companies to private interests. Its executors – the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund – in coordination with the successive Bolivian governments, had unparalleled success in South America’s poorest nation. By the end of the last century, the bulk of Bolivia’s state businesses (mines, gas and oil fields, telecommunications, and airlines) were sold at bargain basement prices to mostly foreign private companies. In September 1999, the Bolivian government, under pressure from the World Bank, decided water was next on the list. Cochabamba’s public water company, SEMAPA (Municipal Water and Sewage Service), was sold to the only bidder: Bechtel-owned Aguas del Tunari. In addition, a law was passed that effectively gave Aguas del Tunari control over all area water systems, including decades-old community-operated wells, countryside irrigation networks, and rain collection systems (leading to the famous expression that Bechtel even tried to own the raindrops). Over the following months, SEMAPA users saw their water rates increase up to four-fold, with no improvement in service. More aggravating for those in poorer regions and in the countryside was that their community-run systems had been taken away from them after years of hard work digging wells, arming pumps, and constructing irrigation networks. Ironically, it was this fact – that Bechtel’s takeover negatively affected everyone in the city and countryside, poor and middle-class alike – that gave the citizen movement its greatest advantage. The unlikely alliances formed among different income groups ended up being crucial to the ultimate victory, according to Water War activists. Also key was how they negotiated this diversity. An organization named the Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) was formed by all involved sectors, and decisions were made transparently and collectively. When it came to protests, everyone had a role: High-schoolers armed barricades on city streets, campesino women took on highway blockades, factory workers walked out of work, others marched. By April 2000, after months of turmoil and with dozens injured and one protester dead by military sniper fire, Bechtel backed down. The Aguas del Tunari contract was rescinded, as was the law that had confiscated people’s communal water networks. “It wasn’t just a victory over one company or even privatization as a practice,” says Oscar Olivera, the soft-spoken shoe factory worker who became the Coordinadora’s spokesman and subsequently one of the anti-corporate globalization movement’s most respected figures. “It was a process of emancipation for us all.”

Continuing Corruption

photo of a car engine converted to run a pump Courtesy Jean Friedman-RudovskyCochabamba’s poorer neighborhoods have to get water however they can.
This Toyota car engine pumps water to 600 households.

Bechtel’s defeat meant SEMAPA would become public once again. How to manage this collective asset became the first and longest lasting post-Water War challenge.

“Our coverage has always been insufficient,” admits SEMAPA’s general manager, Luis Camargo. That is an understatement. In the 1980s, SEMAPA provided water service to about 70 percent of area households, but by 1999, that figure was virtually halved. And there’s always been great disparity in the agency’s service: Almost all their operations were in the wealthier northern neighborhoods, and barely touched the city’s impoverished Zona Sur (southern section).

Some of SEMAPA’s coverage troubles had to do with the actual water scarcity. The word “cochabamba” comes from the Quechua phrase “qhochapampa” ( “swampy land”), but the area’s lakes, lagoons, and waterlogged ground were becoming insufficient for its steadily increasing population.

SEMAPA’s problems couldn’t be blamed on nature alone. Since its creation in 1974, SEMAPA has been steeped in corruption. Management and workers alike used patronage, took kickbacks, and offered nepotism. The total amount lost as a result of purposely bought shoddy equipment and embezzlement will never be known, but it’s easily in the tens of millions of dollars.

In the wake of the Water War, leaders of the Coordinadora knew they couldn’t let SEMAPA go back to the way it was. So the unappetizing task of reform fell to the activists. The Coordinadora proposed a set of mechanisms, calling them “social control,” that would empower citizens to be involved in the company in the hopes it would lead to greater efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency. Suggestions varied from community participation in SEMAPA’s daily operations to citizen financial oversight.

But the initiatives were blocked at every turn by old SEMAPA managers and city politicians who stood to lose big by the suggested reforms. In the end, social control became little more than tokenism: Three of the agency’s seven board members would be “citizen directors” elected by popular vote. The remaining four would be similar to before: the mayor, and one representative each from the mayor’s office, the Union of Professionals, and the workers.

The response was disappointing. Few Cochabamba residents turned out for the board vote, and since then, there’s been little accountability of the board’s actions.

Water War leaders are often asked to explain what happened. For example, why were Cochabamba residents so quick to transition from energetic protest to acquiescence after the battle ended, not even caring enough to vote for the citizen directors? The easy answer is the classic notion that creating alternatives is always harder than being in the opposition. Cochabamba shows that there is some truth to that.

But not everyone agrees that’s the main reason. In fact, some argue the opposite – that the people’s non-participation in reforming SEMAPA was not out of a lack of interest, but because they lacked the opportunities to express that interest.

“Social control will always be limited by its liberal representation system and that decisions are made [within SEMAPA] vertically, with party interests and [a] clientalistic manner,” write researchers María Eugenia Flores and Patricia Quiñones in a recent investigation on SEMAPA. The two find that simply electing board members was a letdown after a struggle in which the people were given the opportunity to participate directly and decide collectively. They had gotten used to being personally empowered and they didn’t want to delegate authority to anyone, much less a board representative.

Whatever the reason for the failure of the SEMAPA reform project, the results are clear. “After eight years, the levels of corruption are intolerable once again,” admits SEMAPA’s Camargo. Nor has service improved much. SEMAPA’s coverage area has expanded, but water doesn’t necessarily flow daily to all its connections. In the impoverished Zona Sur, still only two of the area’s six districts are hooked up to SEMAPA. For those who fought the Water War, this regression has been a nightmare – one that’s not likely to end soon.

What the Other Half Drinks

South of the city’s center lies a more hopeful story and a demonstration that people in Cochabamba are willing to put their time and energy into creating and sustaining viable alternatives to privatization.

The Zona Sur of Cochabamba is a hodgepodge: A quarter million Bolivians from all corners of the country and of all different Indigenous backgrounds migrated to Cochabamba’s outskirts over the last two decades after mines closed and countryside living became too difficult. Each day, they travel again – slightly north – to clean floors and cook meals for wealthier Cochabamba residents. They are the have-nots, particularly when it comes to basic services like water, electricity, sanitation, and sewage, as the Cochabamba municipal government has largely ignored the population’s needs.

The people of the Zona Sur formed the backbone of the urban resistance to Bechtel. Their fight, however, was not to recuperate a public company – after all, they had barely benefited from it in the first place. Rather, they were fighting for the fruits of their own labor.

Many people live on hillsides too rocky and steep for water delivery trucks to climb and have to walk long distances to cisterns to get water for their families.

“[Bechtel] came in and started charging us triple for water from our own well, after we were the ones who built it in the first place,” recalls Fabián Condori, a resident of Sebastián Pagador, a neighborhood in the Zona Sur and founder of a water collective named APAAS (The Association of Production and Administration of Water and Sanitation). “We weren’t going to let it stand.” His voice rises in anger even now, eight years later.

Condori’s community got the well back, and APAAS stands today as one of the most innovative examples of communal water networks in Bolivia.

From 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. every day, potable water flows through the spigots of 600 households (about 7,000 residents) in Sebastián Pagador, a luxury for which families pay $3 a month. The water comes down a pipeline (with only gravity’s help) from a well three and a half miles away, 700 feet up on a hillside. The pump that draws the water up is powered by, of all things, a 1993 10-horsepower Toyota engine.

“We tried lots of ways to get it working,” says Condori, remembering the exhausting three-year trial-and-error period in the early 1990s. “People didn’t think the car engine would work, but it did and it’s still going strong today.”

About one quarter of Zona Sur residents have independently run well or tank systems like those of Sebastián Pagador, or receive irregular SEMAPA service. Another quarter of the impoverished population relies on infrequent cistern deliveries, paying up to six times what SEMAPA charges. The rest of the Zona Sur live on hillsides too rocky for water delivery trucks to climb, or in an area that hasn’t developed its own system yet. These people walk long distances to tanks or cistern drop-offs to provide their families with water.

Zona Sur residents with water collectives speak proudly not only of their ability to provide quality service from self-built arrangements, but also of their alternative management style.

“First, the leaders of our 32 member committees have a meeting,” explains Eduardo Yssa, founder of ASICA Sur, an alliance of the Zona Sur’s water cooperatives, including APAAS. “Then we have a general meeting with everyone. Decisions are discussed and made collectively in that meeting. We’re the opposite of SEMAPA, where the board decides and the people have to obey. In ASICA Sur, the people decide, and their representatives, the leaders, have to comply.”

There are practical limitations to these cooperative systems. Their small size means they lack the financial resources to expand services despite the constant demand. Nor have they been able to build their own water treatment systems. Most pressing is the looming reality that the wells will dry up at some point (Sebastián Pagador has another decade at its current rate) and there’s no dedicated large-scale water source for the Zona Sur in sight.

Residents, however, emphasize that despite any problems, the most important accomplishment is a shared understanding of the value of the water itself.

“We in ASICA Sur believe that water is life,” say Yssa. “It has to be for everyone and it can’t be used for profit or personal gain. This is our vision.”

Government of Change?

In 2005, Bolivia elected its first-ever Indigenous president, then 45-year-old Aymara coca grower Evo Morales. This historic event was, in part, due to the Water War: Morales could not have come to power without the wave of social protest that Cochabamba sparked in 2000. The ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party calls itself “the government of change,” and has promised to turn the tide on Bolivia’s entrenched racism, shocking inequality, and widespread poverty.

But when it comes to water, says ASICA Sur’s Yssa, “There exists no change.”

Upon taking power, the MAS created Bolivia’s first ever Ministry of Water to, according to the government, “satisfy the population’s needs with respect to sufficient quality and quantity of water…[and to] create … equal, supportive, and universal access.” But the Ministry, with its annual budget of $800,000, has made little progress toward these goals. The government boasts that hundreds of thousands of people now have water connections, thanks to the Ministry’s work, but it’s unclear whether water (and how much of it) flows through those pipelines.

In fact, the first minister, Abel Mamani, and his staff spent two years jockeying for control of job posts and project budgets in order to benefit their particular constituencies rather than getting work done. Morales finally got rid of Mamani earlier this year, and Cochabamba residents see in the new minister, Rene Orellana, a better chance that projects will move along – specifically, construction of a massive dam near Cochabamba that could alleviate the city’s desperate need for more water.

Water has also become an issue in the new constitution. The text, which was finished last year but is still pending approval via a national referendum, assures that “water constitutes a fundamental life right,” and as such, no water resources can be “subject to private appropriation.” These are welcomed clauses, but critics worry that the government is trying to use this positive advancement to draw attention away from the current most pressing water-related problem in Bolivia: its quickening disappearance.

Many areas of Bolivia get their water from glaciers, which are melting at an alarming rate. So far, little has been done to figure out how Bolivians will survive if the glaciers are gone by the second half of this century. The government has not moved away from its economic reliance on water-heavy extractive industries.

“We need political leaders who are willing to put life before mining,” says Marcelo Becerra of the Fundación Abril, an organization founded by Olivera in 2001 to support community water projects. Becerra explains that Bolivia’s San Cristobal silver mine alone uses about half as much water as the entire city of Cochabamba daily. “If there isn’t a redefinition of our emphasis on development at all costs, there will be no water left, privatized or not.”

That redefinition, however, may be a long way off, according to Olivera.

“The government has been unable to take a pause and construct a direction for itself,” he laments. “These reflections – that water is life and that there needs to be a political reorientation to how we deal with water – fall on deaf ears.”

Where the Spirit Lives

“The Water War is a war that never ended,” says Boris Rios, a stocky, long-haired 28-year-old who manned barricades in 2000 and now works for the Fundación Abril. In the context of our interview, he was referring to the endless battles against SEMAPA’s corruption, a commercialist vision of water, government indifference, and the threat that the memory of the Water War, like the graffiti from that period, will eventually fade away.

But his reflection rings true for the best of that period as well.

“The spirit of the Water War is present all around us,” says Olivera, a humble man who has been the subject of more documentaries and news features than he cares to count. He talks about the Zona Sur residents’ persistence in developing their own water solutions, the resurgent strength of Cochabamba factory workers, and the fact that many who stood on the front lines in 2000 now volunteer their time holding community workshops in water management and resources. Despite all odds, he’s got hope that SEMAPA will one day be successfully reformed.

Indeed, when it comes to the unequal access to water in Cochabamba and the grassroots mobilization skills and strength gathered in 2000, for the people of Cochabamba, especially those of the Zona Sur, the Water War is a long way from over.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is the correspondent for TIME and ABC News in Bolivia. She is also a founding editor of Ukhampacha Bolivia, a bilingual online journal that covers political and social movements in Latin America.

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