What Was The Bolivian ‘Water War?’

According to NACLA, in April 2000, there was a popular struggle against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city.  It started a series of events that profoundly changed the nation’s political landscape.

NACLA writes that it was called the Water War and it began when Cochabamba’s municipal water company, SEMAPA, was sold to a transnational consortium controlled by U.S.-based Bechtel from San Francisco.  The consortium was named Aguas del Tunari.  Other sources call Aguas del Tunari a joint venture that included Bechtel. PBS called Aguas del Tunari a “division of Bechtel.”

Cochabamba’s municipal water company was sold in exchange for debt relief for the Bolivian government as well as new World Bank loans to expand the water system, according to NACLA.

A new law allowed Bechtel to administer water resources that SEMAPA did not even control.  These resources included the communal water systems prevalent in the ever-expanding southern part of the country and in the countryside, which had never been hooked into the grid.

Wikipedia states that tensions erupted when Aguas del Tunari was required to invest in construction of long-envisioned dam (a priority of Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa), so they had dramatically raised water rates. NACLA states there was an average 50% increase in water rates for SEMAPA customers.

The events led to the formation of an alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middleclass professionals in opposition to water privatization. They were joined by the militant federation of coca growers, led by then labor leader Evo Morales, who lent his considerable expertise in organizing civic strikes, road blockades, and massive popular assemblies.  Bechtel was forced to end its contract, return SEMAPA to public control, and withdraw its legal claim against the Bolivian government for $50 million in compensation.

There was also a growing demand for popular control of Bolivia’s natural resources, which lead to the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, the overthrow of two presidents, and the subsequent election of Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party as a “government of the social movements.”  A second water revolt – this time in the sprawling indigenous city of El Alto – ousted the French multinational Suez company from the recently-privatized La Paz-El Alto water district. (Suez merged with Gaz de France in 2008 to form GDF Suez, which changed its name in April this year to Engie. The water and waste assets of Suez were spun off into a subsidiary, Suez Environnement, writes Wikipedia.)

Bolivia’s new constitution, enacted in 2009, proclaims that access to water is a human right and bans its privatization.

Outside Bolivia, the Water War helped to inspire a worldwide anti-globalization movement and provided a model for water-justice struggles throughout the Americas and beyond. The Bolivian government led the successful drive for UN recognition of water and sanitation as a human right in 2010 and is in the forefront of a new international campaign for a UN declaration against water privatization.

Water-justice advocates still look to Bolivia for successful alternative models to privatization, writes NACLA.

(Updated article)