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.
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.
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.