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Fight-Back in Bolivia | The Nation

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Fight-Back in Bolivia

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In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water system.

About the Author

Tony Clarke
Tony Clarke is the director of the Polaris Institute. He serves on the board of the International Forum on...
Maude Barlow
Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She serves on the board of the International Forum on...

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In South Africa, the only country in the world where people's right to
water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships
surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of
resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have
had their water cut off since the government implemented a World
Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program (which makes availability
dependent on a company's ability to recover its costs plus a
profit)--something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid.
More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with
cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local
communities were cut off for nonpayment.

Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the
population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where
women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back
sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water
is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume
60 percent of the country's water supplies for irrigation, while 15
million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the
South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to
organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the
water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing
sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot
by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but
implemented by their own governments.

Privatization must be stopped, and water declared the common property of
all.

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Not everyone considers access to water to be a human right. A global water justice movement is changing that notion.

In South Africa, the only country in the world where people's right to
water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships
surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of
resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have
had their water cut off since the government implemented a World
Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program (which makes availability
dependent on a company's ability to recover its costs plus a
profit)--something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid.
More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with
cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local
communities were cut off for nonpayment.

Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the
population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where
women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back
sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water
is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume
60 percent of the country's water supplies for irrigation, while 15
million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the
South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to
organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the
water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing
sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot
by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but
implemented by their own governments.

In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company, leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel, meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes.

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