Water Warriors

Maude Barlow
The Nation
April 14, 2008 issue

Thousands have lived without love,
not one without water.

W.H. Auden, First Things First


A fierce resistance to the corporate takeover of water has grown in every
corner of the globe, giving rise to a coordinated and, given the powers it
is up against, surprisingly successful water justice movement. “Water for all”
is the rallying cry of local groups fighting for access to clean water
and the life, health and dignity that it brings. Many of these groups have
lived through years of abuse, poverty and hunger. Many have been left
without public education and health programs when their governments were
forced to abandon them under World Bank structural adjustment policies. But
somehow, the assault on water has been the great standpoint for millions.
Without water there is no life, and for thousands of communities around the
world, the struggle over the right to their own local water sources has been
politically galvanizing.

A mighty contest has grown between those (usually power- ful) forces and
institutions that see water as a commodity, to be put on the open market and
sold to the highest bidder, and those who see water as a public trust, a
common heritage of people and nature, and a fundamental human right.
The origins of this movement, generally referred to as the global water justice
movement, lie in the hundreds of communities around the world where
people are fighting to protect their local water supplies from pollution,
destruction by dams and theft–be it from other countries, their own
governments or private corporations such as bottled water companies and
private utilities backed by the World Bank. Until the late 1990s, however, most
were operating in isolation, unaware of other struggles or the global nature
of the water crisis.

Latin America was the site of the first experiments with water privatization
in the developing world. The failure of these projects has been a major
factor in the rejection of the neoliberal market model by so many Latin
American countries that have said no to the extension of the North American
Free Trade Agreement to the Southern Hemisphere and that have forced
the big water companies to retreat. A number of Latin American countries are
also opting out of some of the most egregious global institutions. This past
May Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua announced their decision to withdraw
from the World Bank’s arbitration court, the International Centre for the
Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), in no small measure because of
the way the big water corporations have used the center to sue for
compensation when the countries terminated private delivery contracts.

Latin America, with its water abundance, should have one of the highest per
capita allocations of water in the world. Instead, it has one of the lowest.
There are three reasons, all connected: polluted surface waters, deep class
inequities and water privatization. In many parts of Latin America, only the
rich can buy clean water. So it is not surprising that some of the most
intense fights against corporate control of water have come out of this region
of the world.

The first “water war” gained international attention when the indigenous
peoples of Cochabamba, Bolivia, led by a five-foot, slightly built, unassuming
shoemaker named Oscar Olivera, rose up against the privatization
of their water services. In 1999, under World Bank supervision, the Bolivian
government had passed a law privatizing Cochabamba’s water system and
gave the contract to US engineering giant Bechtel, which immediately tripled
the price of water. In a country where the minimum wage is less than $60 a
month, many users received water bills of $20 a month, which they simply
could not afford. As a result, La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la
Vida (Coalition in Defense of Water and Life), one of the first coalitions
against water privatization in the world, was formed and organized a
successful referendum demanding the government cancel its contract with
Bechtel. When the government refused to listen, many thousands took to the
streets in nonviolent protest and were met with army violence that wounded
dozens and killed a 17-year-old boy. On April 10, 2000, the Bolivian
government relented and told Bechtel to leave the country.

The Bolivian government had also bowed to pressure from the World Bank to
privatize the water of La Paz and in 1997 gave Suez, a French-based
multinational, a thirty-year contract to supply water services to it and El
Alto, the hilly region surrounding the capital, where thousands of indigenous
peoples live. From the beginning, there were problems. Aguas del Illimani,
a Suez subsidiary, broke three key promises: it did not deliver to all
the residents, poor as well as rich, leaving about 200,000 without water;
it charged exorbitant rates for water hookups, about $450, equivalent to the
food budget of a poor family for two years; and it did not invest in
infrastructure repair or wastewater treatment, choosing instead to build a
series of ditches and canals through poor areas of La Paz, which it used to
send garbage, raw sewage and even the effluent from the city’s abattoirs
into Lake Titicaca, considered by UNESCO a World Heritage site. To add
insult to injury, the company located its fortresslike plant under the
beautiful Mount Illimani, where it captured the snowmelt off the mountain
and, after rudimentary treatment, piped it into the homes of families and
businesses in La Paz that could pay. The nearest community, Solidaridad, a
slum of about 100 families with no electricity, heat or running water, had
its only water supply cut off. Its school and health clinic, built with
foreign-aid money, could not operate because of a lack of water. It was the
same all through El Alto.

An intense resistance to Suez formed. FEJUVE, a network of local community
councils and activists, led a series of strikes in January 2005, which
crippled the cities and brought business to a halt. This resistance was a
prime factor in the ousting of presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and
Carlos Mesa. Their replacement, Evo Morales, the first indigenous president
in the country’s history, negotiated Suez’s departure. On January 3, 2007,
he held a ceremony at the presidential palace celebrating the return of the
water of La Paz and El Alto after a long and bitter confrontation. “Water
cannot be turned over to private business,” said Morales. “It must remain a
basic service, with participation of the state, so that water service can be
provided almost for free.”

Although they have received less international attention, similar battles
over privatized water have raged in Argentina. Río de la Plata (Silver
River) separates Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, from Montevideo, the
capital of Uruguay. For 500 years, it has also been called Mar Dulce (Sweet
Sea) because its size made people think it was a freshwater sea. Today,
however, the river is famous for something else: it is one of the few rivers
in the world whose pollution can be seen from space. On March 21, 2006, the
Argentine government rescinded the thirty-year contract of Aguas
Argentinas, the Suez subsidiary that had run the Buenos Aires water system
since 1993, in no small part because the company broke its promise to
treat wastewater, continuing to dump nearly 90 percent of the city’s sewage
into the river. In another broken promise, the company repeatedly raised
tariffs, for a total increase of 88 percent in the first ten years of operation.
Water quality was another issue; water in seven districts had nitrate levels so
high it was unfit for human consumption. An April 2007 report by the city’s
ombudsman stated that most of the population of 150,000 in the southern
district of the city lived with open-air sewers and contaminated drinking

Yet as Food and Water Watch reports, the Inter-American Development Bank
continued to fund Suez as late as 1999, despite the mounting evidence that
the company was pulling in 20 percent profit margins while refusing to
invest in services or infrastructure. Outrageously, with the backing of the
French government, Suez is trying to recoup $1.7 billion in “investments”
and up to $33 million in unpaid water bills at the ICSID. Suez had just (in
December 2005) been forced out of the province of Santa Fe, where it had a
thirty-year contract to run the water systems of thirteen cities. The company
is also suing the provincial government at the ICSID for $180 million.
Close on the heels of the Buenos Aires announcement, Suez was forced to
abandon its last stronghold in Argentina, the city of Córdoba, when water
rates were raised 500 percent on one bill.

In all cases, strong civil society resistance was key to these retreats. A
coalition of water users and residents of Santa Fe, led by Alberto Múñoz and
others, actually organized a huge and successful plebiscite, in which
256,000 people, about a twelfth of the population of the province, voted to
rescind Suez’s contract. They convened a Provincial Assembly on the Right to
Water with 7,000 activists and citizens in November 2002, which set the
stage for the political opposition to the company. The People’s Commission
for the Recovery of Water in Córdoba is a highly organized network of trade
unions, neighborhood centers, social organizations and politicians with a
clear goal of public water for all, and was instrumental in getting the
government to break its contract with Suez. “What we want is a public
company managed by workers, consumers and the provincial government,
and monitored by university experts to guarantee water quality and prevent
corruption,” says Luis Bazán, the group’s leader and a water worker who
refused employment with Suez.

exico is a beachhead for privatization across the region, with its elites
having access to all the water they need and also controlling governments at
most levels of the country. Only 9 percent of the country’s surface water is
fit for drinking, and its aquifers are being drawn down mercilessly.
According to the National Commission on Water, 12 million Mexicans have
no access to potable water whatsoever and another 25 million live in villages
and cities where the taps run as little as a few hours a week. Eighty-two
percent of wastewater goes untreated. Mexico City has dried up, and its 22
million inhabitants live on the verge of crisis. Services are so poor in the
slums and outskirts of the city that cockroaches run out when the tap is
turned on. In many “colonias” in Mexico City and around the country, the
only available water is sold from trucks that bring it in once a week, often
by political parties that sell the water for votes.

In 1983 the federal government handed over responsibility for the water
supply to the municipalities. Then in 1992 it passed a new national water
bill that encouraged the municipalities to privatize water in order to receive
funding. Privatization was supported by former President Vicente Fox,
himself a former senior executive with Coca-Cola, and is also favored by
the current president, Felipe Calderón. The World Bank and the Inter-
American Development Bank are actively promoting water privatization
in Mexico. In 2002 the World Bank provided $250 million for infrastructure
repair with conditions that municipalities negotiate public-private
partnerships. Suez is deeply entrenched in Mexico, running the water
services for part of Mexico City, Cancún and about a dozen other cities. Its
wastewater division, Degremont, has a large contract for San Luis Potosí and
several other cities as well. The privatization of water has become a top
priority for the Mexican water commission, Conagua. As in other countries,
privatization in Mexico has brought exorbitant water rates, broken promises
and cutoffs to those who cannot pay. The Water Users Association in
Saltillo, where a consortium of Suez and the Spanish company Aguas de
Barcelona run the city’s water systems, reports that a 2004 audit by the state
comptroller found evidence of contractual and state law violations.

A vibrant civil society movement has recently come together to fight for the
right to clean water and resist the trend to corporate control in Mexico. In
April 2005 the Mexican Center for Social Analysis, Information and Training
(CASIFOP) brought together more than 400 activists, indigenous peoples,
small farmers and students to launch a coordinated grassroots resistance to
water privatization. The Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to
Water (COMDA) is a large collection of environmental, human rights,
indigenous and cultural groups devoted not only to activism but also to
community-based education on water, its place in Mexico’s history and the
need for legislation to protect the public’s right to access. Their hopes for a
government supportive of their perspective were dashed when conservative
candidate Calderón won (many say stole) the 2006 presidential election
over progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Calderón is
working openly with the private water companies to cement private control
of the country’s water supplies.

Other Latin American cities or countries rejecting water privatization include
Bogotá, Colombia (although other Colombian cities, including Cartagena,
have adopted private water systems); Paraguay, whose lower house rejected
a Senate proposal to privatize water in July 2005; Nicaragua, where a
fierce struggle has been waged by civil society groups and where in January
2007 a court ruled against the privatization of the country’s wastewater
infrastructure; and Brazil, where strong public opinion has held back the
forces of water privatization in most cities. Unfortunately, resistance in Peru,
where increased rates, corruption and debt plague the system, has not
yet reversed water privatization. Likewise, in Chile, resistance to water
privatization is very difficult because of the entrenched commitment
to market ideology of the ruling elites, although there is hope that the
center-left government of Michelle Bachelet will be more open to arguments
for public governance of Chile’s water supplies.

From thousands of local struggles for the basic right to water–not just
throughout Latin America but in Asia-Pacific countries, Africa and the United
States and Canada–a highly organized international water justice movement
has been forged and is shaping the future of the world’s water. This
movement has already had a profound effect on global water politics, forcing
global institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations to
admit the failure of their model, and it has helped formulate water policy
inside dozens of countries. The movement has forced open a debate over the
control of water and challenged the “Lords of Water” who had set themselves
up as the arbiters of this dwindling resource. The growth of a democratic
global water justice movement is a critical and positive development that
will bring needed accountability, transparency and public oversight to the
water crisis as conflicts over water loom on the horizon.

Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She serves
on the board of the International Forum on Globalization and is the author
of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right
to Water
(New Press).