Bolivia's Second Water War

by Zane Grant & Kat Shuffler

Z magazine, March 2005



The city of La Paz, Bolivia appears to be back to normal as representatives from neighborhood organizations meet with the government over a number of demands that have arisen during Bolivia's second water war in five years.

Many citizens' groups have intensified a range of demands, from a halt on the war on drugs to state autonomy for the western province of Santa Cruz. In previous weeks, however, all eyes have been on the tumultuous success of El Alto, the sprawling city 200 miles up from La Paz. The government has conceded to the demands of the people in this case, but as always in Bolivia, there is room for surprises.

With the political uprising of the Alteflos, the people of Bolivia have once again made themselves heard in the struggle against water privatization. In 2000 it was in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city, in which people organized against privatization. The ousting of the last remaining private water company in Bolivia, Aguas de Illimani, part of French transnational Suez, has been a long process that finally erupted in the streets of El Alto this January. Although the cities' situations are different, these victories share the same voice.

A Mobilized Population

Aymaras, an indigenous city of 800,000, was the principal battleground of the violent police repression of the 2003 "gas wars" that led to the expulsion of the last president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. For an intense couple of days this January, masses of street vendors, housewives, factory workers, militant ex-miners, and the unemployed in El Alto initiated the ousting of Bolivia's last remaining private water company with direct action, blocking the only highway connecting the capital and the rest of the country.

The Federation of Neighborhood Committees of El Alto (Fejuve) started the process in September with the release of a list of demands called "Pliego Nacional" resulting from extensive grassroots discussions in the impovershed neighborhoods of this city.

On Thursday, January 13, 2005 President Mesa issued a formal decree stating that the state would take back control of water and sewage services in El Alto and La Paz. The executives of Suez, however, have made contradictory statements, and say they are not ready to leave.

The public water systems of El Alto and La Paz were transferred to the administration of the Aguas de Illimani Corporation in 1997 as a result of a World Bank loan that was conditioned on the privatization of water systems. The private consortium-ironically named after a beautiful snow-capped mountain on the horizon-is jointly owned by Suez, the World Bank, which holds 8 percent of shares, and other private investors.

Citizens of El Alto have seen the price of water increase by 35 percent since the company took over. The cost for new families to connect their homes to water and sewage totals more than $445, an amount that exceeds more than six months of income at the national minimum wage, states the San Francisco-based Democracy Center's Jim Shultz. Since privatization, citizens' groups report, the company has failed to expand the aging system, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to safe drinking water.

According to Suez, revenues for 2003 reached $23 billion through its energy and "environmental" water services. The company owns water facilities on six continents and is responsible for water distribution to over 200 million homes.

Cochabamba's Water War

The current uprising in El Alto against private ownership of water and sewage services occurred exactly five years after the so called "water wars" in Cochabamba resulted in the ousting of the transnational company Aguas de Tunari, a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation. The water wars in Cochabamba, however, did not succeed without a great cost. The city was in a state of martial law with the military turning on people protesting in the streets because they could not pay their water bills.

After the streets were cleared and the people had successfully expelled Bechtel from Cochabamba, the state-owned enterprise SEMAPA, Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado, took over the city's water and sewage. Unfortunately, while the prices have again become affordable, the difficult task of providing water for a million people in the city and in outlying areas has not been taken care of as many would have wished. The sentiment seems to be, however, that at least it's a Bolivian company doing the job.

A further consequence of the city-wide demonstrations in Cochabamba in 2000 is that Bechtel initially attempted to sue Bolivia for $25 million in lost revenue through a secretive trade court operated by the World Bank. Later, however, Bechtel reportedly settled for a symbolic 2 Bolivianos (roughly 30 cents). But this settlement is pending for the time being as one of Bechtel's partners, the Abengoa Corporation of Spain, continues to demand millions of dollars in compensation from Bolivia's poor.

Into The Streets

0n the ground in Bolivia, water has become politicized from necessity. "This is not an ideological rebellion, but a consumer revolt," says Shultz. "These revolts [in Cochabamba and El Alto] are about Bolivians reversing a set of policy decisions that they didn't make and that they don't like the results from." Although everyday Bolivians made the decision to expel the company out of necessity, the neighborhood committees' capacity to organize a community is one example of a newly politicized indigenous identity that has emerged in recent years to make demands of the government.

Though former President Sanchez de Lozada blamed "Cuba, anarchist-syndicalists, and Trotskyists" for his removal at a speech on democracy at American University in late 2003, most scholars agree that a significant portion of this opposition arose from the indigenous Quechua and Aymara majority. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz, argues, "Indigenous communities and their unions expressed their own identity and demands to mold hope for an "other" democracy."

"They don't listen to us, but we don't use arms," says the secretary of Fejuve, Mercedes Condori Quispe. When asked about the politics of her organization in relation to the state, she expressed that it was not that they were radical, but organized in their demands. "We instead use marches and blockades to make the government listen," Condori said. The participants in this movement against privatization maintain that the means of political mobilization emerge from the intense inequality that shapes life in El Alto.

Whether or not this larger struggle for indigenous representation accomplishes its goals, the citizens of El Alto have successfully pressured the government into severing its contract with a private water company. Regarding how the government will do this with the cooperation of Suez, without being sued by investors, or completely discouraging badly needed foreign investment in other sectors is unknown. The other task at hand is to not repeat the mistakes made with the state takeover in Cochabamba. The neighborhood organizations are now at the bargaining table in La Paz attempting to create a transitory body to take over the formidable task of providing much needed potable water to tens of thousands of people.


Zane Grant and Kat Shiftier are graduate students at American University in Washington, DC. They are currently studying social movements in Bolivia and Argentina.

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