“When drinking water, think of its source.”
Access to clean water. There’s little I take more for granted than the simple fact that in Vancouver I can run the tap in my kitchen faucet and drink freely. I couldn’t do that as an upper-middle class child growing up in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the mid-nineties to the early noughties.
But that didn’t matter, because as an upper-middle class child I could drink filtered water from a large, cream-coloured ceramic filter of european make and not pause to think that when our young maid went back to her village, come a long holiday, she would likely not even be able to afford the groundwater from the village well.
Water access was (and remains) gentrified. For a long five months between 1999 and 2000, due to the stipulations required by the loans from neo-liberalism’s personal band of thugs: the World Bank and the IMF, water belonged to anyone but the Bolivian people.
Privatization & Austerity
For the longest time, Bolivia had been the quintessential example of an exploitable third world country. A politically insignificant but resource-rich country, the poorest in South America, while also being a largely indigenous and thus culturally irrelevant, georgraphic cassatta for mostly American exploit under the guise of some varrying DEA-interventionist, pseudo-anti-drug propaganda warfare.
By the mid-1980’s, hyper-inflation following decades of military dictatorship led the Bolivian government to it’s last resort against the economic meltdown, the World Bank.
We see this pattern across the Global South.
I will give both the IMF and World Bank a shred of the benefit of the doubt. After all, an economy for white, city-dwelling Bolivians who could afford the extortion of privatized water provision would remain relatively unscathed by the premise of the venture but I would like to provide a brief yet important reminder to both the IMF and the World Bank: condemning the majority of a countries population is not charitable nor humane.
In fact both the IMF and World Bank exist as the quintessential example of contrived development aid, one jaded by an attitudinal and theoretical background which posits “third world countries” as backward, corrupt, and incapable of profitable and successful self-rule. The facticity of povery, as Maia Green explains, implies shared instruments of international aid as wall as (and more concerning even) a shared theoretical framework. Such static mentality brooks no opposition. Unless, of course, the opposition manifests itself in the uprises of subaltern peoples who challenge the uni-dimensionality of poverty.
The Cochabambian case, situated in the Water War between 1999-2000 rewrites poverty and struggle as multi-dimensional deprivation beyond income, involving capabilities, entitlement, and rights which are contextualized by greater global forces and contested by grassroots resistance movements.
Aguas del Tunari | Bechtel, IMF, and the World Bank
When Bolivia sought to refinance the public water system of it’s third largest city the World Bank required that it be privatized which is how the Bechtel corporation of San Fransisco gained controlled of Cochabambian water.
The Bolivian government under President Hugo Banzer agreed to the terms of its sole bidder Aguas del Tunari and signed a $2.5 billion, 40-year concession “to provide water and sanitation services to the residents of Cochabamba, as well as generate electricity and irrigation for agriculture.”
The major shareholder of Aguas del Tunari, Bechtel subsidiary International Water Ltd., claims that water delivery coverage and sewage connection will increase by at least 93 percent by the fifth year of private water management in Cochabamba. That same month, the Bolivian parliament passes Law 2029 (the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law), which allows for the privatization of state drinking water and sewage disposal services. In effect, the law would make residents pay full cost for water services in Cochabamba while establishing a coercive monopoly of power.
Prior to privatization the government company SEMAPA covered but 57% percent of the population, and had roughly 50% losses in what is called unaccounted for water coming from leakages. People depended on private wells or vendors, expensive and inconvenient sources.The international consortium “Aguas del Tunari” (a subsidiary of Bechtel) was granted a concession to supply drinking water and sewerage services to the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia in September 1999 and Bechtel’s contract officially began in November of 1999. By January of 2000 water prices had increased by 35% to roughly $20 a month for people earning roughly $100 a month – this equated to more money spent on water than on food.
Starting in January of 2000 the Coordinadora (Coalition) in Defence of Water and Life led by Oscar Olivera, an indigenous factory union worker and antiglobalization activist, began organizing in response to governmental inaction. Peaceful demonstration began across the city throughout February, which were marred by riot police violence. On March 22 the Coordinadora held an unofficial referendum which resulted in an overwhelming 96% of 50,000 voters as disapproving of the privatization of water through Aguas Del Tunari and pushing the government to declare of a 90 day state of emergency.
La politica de despojo y saqueo | Dispossession and Pillage Politics
“Denying people access to their own water is, basically, denying people Life.”
Curtis Runyan, Worldwatch Institute
Ahlers’ and Zwarteveen’s analysis of feminist (that is, second wave) argumentation on the benefits of resource privatization stands strong in the Bolivian context. After all they stressed how, though neoliberal policies may initially appeal to a marginalized ground (such as women) who have not had the benefit of having access to resources or property such policies would, first and foremost benefit solely the most privileged subset of such a group (in this case wealthy urban women) and in the long run exploit all parties but the ruling party involved. As they have stressed, a true critical feminist approach would call for challenging the individualization, marketization and consumer/client focus of the neoliberal paradigm. This is exactly what occurred in the Cochabambian context.
Tambien la Lluvia | Even the Rain
There is a film under the phrase which overflowed the socio-political bucket, if you will.
It situates a fictional Spanish movie concerned with colonial contact in the Bolivian Amazons and filmed in the midst of the Cochabamba Water War. It is an interesting exploration of value we attribute to certain kinds of cultural capital by juxtaposing European cinematic production being inconvenienced by the rising protests against the true and life-threatening struggle against foreign resource monopoly of local water.
Guerreros del Agua | The Water Warriors
“El pueblo fue el que empujo y estaba claramente decidido a truinfar / The People where the ones who pushed and were clearly determined to triumph.” Oscar, Olivera
The death of 17 year old Victor Hugo Daza on April 8th was the climactic peak for the resistance. The young man was shot during the militarized response by Banzer’s government to the peaceful protesting in the city. From secure outposts across the Andes coalition workers exposed Bechtel’s involvement through the internet. From the moment of militarization it took 4 months of protest for the congress to meet in an emergency session and cancel Bechtel’s contract.
This was a historical victory, the first of it’s kind against water privatization worldwide. It has become a focal point and prototype of protest for all kinds of resource privatization. Particularly the successful forbidding of the Ley 2029 (“Servicio de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado Sanitario”) from passing, which remains the legal hallmark of the fierce battle,
They are born barren like the earth in this cavernous pit
spitting ash like a hearth, coughing dirt from ill health.
“Welcome to the city of eternal spring” – Cochabamba:
Kochaj-pampa, plain of lakes, fertile Llajta crumbling
whilst crusting its people in its timorous, tumorous wake.
The wind is stirring across this alkaline bowl,
factory workers polish shoes in Quillacollo over west,
maids chop onions for a stew throughout middleclass kitchens,
cholitas sell peaches by the road, “come over cacerita!”
and above the rhythmic buzz of the not quite bourgeois floats
the butcher’s palace with its cutlets dressed in suits,
who host the salivating gluttons that govern global institutes.
“I’m afraid we must inform you of your dire situation,
with the expired loanings of our grand generosity
we will charge you the provision of a necessary commodity:
water, even the rain that bathes this sinking nation
will be under the ‘guidance’ of this international corporation.”
You could have heard a tear drop as the ultimatum was delivered
making the local suit’s chicha pock-marked livers quiver.
“Shh, keep it down or the news might spread to town.
Worry not, rest assured we’ll guard your polished sinecures” –
cue the wind…
too much hot air filling this treacherous room,
marble windows burst the thieving balloon
and the message is dispersed:
People flow and spill past the sidewalk banks,
tributaries feed the river of humanitarian demands.
The throats of the thirsty are carpeted green,
molars black, jaws slack and full of coca leaf.
Sweat anoints their molasses skin, drips into the
orange peel and piss coating the streets thick,
like a varnish, like a haze burning your eyes, clouding
your entorhinal senses, Blockade suppressing the last
vestiges of your empathic pretenses. Martial bullets
skirt the shores of people until a boy is killed amongst the injured –
You’ve forgotten all eyes will tear but they are saving their reserves
until you charge them for the water in their blood and their cells
The open veins of this valley’s carcass were exsanguinated by mistakes,
by misuse, by not knowing how to sustain the pristine,
by not having the resources for keeping it clean.
Regret, remorse, repenting.
The arid throat chokes with legitimate pain,
lucrative transnationals’ thirst only for gain.
Recharge, repeat, remaining –
But not –
this time you lost, this once, this first, this humble valley
left you cursed, belligerent, self-entitled tyrant
of the earth, your shackles rattle loose like the Spanish
Crown shattered once upon a bicentennial time,
the People’s clamour proudly rebuffs your foolish bribe
of the very gold they were once coerced to find.
written by Vivian Urquidi,
Gobierno Parido por la Guerra del Agua: A Gorvernment Birthed by the Water War
The poem, written two years ago now, tastes bitter and ashy in my mouth as the situation in my home town progressively worsens. President Evo Morales callled for a state of emergency just a couple of weeks ago in late November.
This past July my most beloved aunt’s auxiliary nurse told me of how her grandmother can determine the outcome of a crop by the lifting of a rock. If the patch of earth under the rock is damp then the crops will yield aplenty. If it is dry, then the drought perseveres and the campesinos are cursed to yet another year of low wages and no surplus food to spare.
The patch had been parched.
It is a bitter realization for the white minority who has, for the bulk of Bolivian history, had exclusively comprised the socio-economic oligarchy ruling and benefitting of said rule. To come to terms with the fact that when your earth is fucked, or rather, when the Global North ruins your earth, resources hold no prejudice:
No water at all, when it could have been: free, clean water for all.
*Title Translation: Yakuta, Unuta munani is Quechua for: “I want water.”
Ahlers, Rhodante, and Margreet Zwarteveen. “The Water Question in Feminism: Water Control and Gender Inequities in a Neo-liberal Era.” Gender, Place & Culture 16.4 (2009): 409-26.
Green, Maia. “Representing Poverty and Attacking Representations: Perspectives on Poverty from Social Anthropology.” Journal of Development Studies 42.7 (2007): 1108-129.
Nava, Jhenny. “La Guerra Del Agua, Mas Logros Politicos Que Servicios Basicos.”Opinion. N.p., 8 Apr. 2014.
“Timeline: Cochabamba Water Revolt.” Frontline World. PBS, June 2002.