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Now that We’ve sketched out the situation a little, we can move on to possible solutions. Remember this: we have the power because we have the money. Without us products aren’t purchased, there is no economic growth, there is no profit. Each time you buy something you cast a vote for the type of world you wish to see.

Cochabamba, Bolivia.

In 1982 Bolivia ended decades of military rule in favor of a civilian government, but this welcomed change did not bring financial security with it. Deep in debt with rabid inflation, it could  not attract foreign investment and was forced to turn to the World Bank and the IMF for help.

The IMF approved a $138 million loan, but the required “structural reforms” stated that the country must sell off, or privatize, all of its remaining public utilities and infrastructure. So, Bolivia’s railway system, telephone system, airlines, hydrocarbon industries and eventually even its water services were sold to private companies.

It must be noted that these conditions are pretty much standard for World Bank and IMF loans.

Cochabamba is Bolivia’s third largest city and it’s water was provided up until that time by the state agency: SEMAPA. (at that time, many of the cities residents had no water at all in their homes or had water service only for a few hours per day). Under the terms of the loans, SEMAPA was put up for auction. Only one consortium of companies bid; Aguas del Tunari, which was controlled by Britain’s International Water, Italy’s Edison and the US’ Bechtel Enterprise Holdings.

At the time this deal was being made, certain Bolivian officials felt that a new dam would be needed. The World Bank, which was reaching the end of its involvement in Cochabamba felt that the damn was too costly and recommended water be diverted from an existing dam. The new dam, however was a pet project and it was pushed through.

On Oct 11, 1999 Aguas del Tunari was officially awarded forty year concession rights to provide water and sanitation services to Cochabamba. It is also announced that Aguas del Tunari will generate electrical energy and irrigation water for the regions agricultural sector. Bechtel’s International Water also claims that water delivery coverage and sewage connections will increase by about 93% by the fifth year of the program.

Also in October of 1999, the Bolivian government passed law 2029 in order to legalize the privatization of water and sanitation services. However, the law is so broadly worded that it could allow Aguas del Tunari complete control over all water resources including irrigation water, water from communal wells and, believe it or not, rainwater.

And, it made the residents pay the full cost of water services in Cochabamba.

Being western foreigners, the consortium was clueless about the potential impact of this. They didn’t think that raising the water rates 35% to about $20 per month would be a big deal. But, when your entire income is less than $100 per month and you spend less than $20 on food, it turned into a big deal in a big hurry.  Especially when a manager for the consortium indicated that water would be cut off to anyone not paying their bills.

And it wasn’t just the poor who were being thrown under the bus. Local businesses large and small along with middle-class homeowners saw their subsidies vanish as well.

So, in January of 2000 the protests began. There were large marches and speeches and a demonstration in the city’s main plaza that started peacefully enough . . .

Riot police met the demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets and live ammunition. The demonstrators responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Hundreds were arrested, injured and a half dozen killed. Most notably a 17 year old kid shot dead by a Bolivian Army captain which was captured on live TV.

In April of 2000, the government finally backed down and began to set things right. Aguas del Tunari was legislated to withdraw from the country and the control of Cochabamba’s water was turned over to a grassroots coalition. Detained protestors are released and it was promised that law 2029 would be repealed. Legislation that would have allowed for peasants to be charged for water drawn from communal wells is also removed.

So, it’s all over . . . except for the reprisals.

In November of 2001, Aguas del Tunari seeks restitution from the Bolivian government through the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in the Netherlands, alleging that Bolivia violated a bilateral trade agreement when it revoked the consortium’s Cochabamba contract.

Then, in February 2002, it is announced that Bechtel seeks $25 Million in damages for breach of Aguas del Tunari’s contract with Bolivia via the ICSID. Disgusting when you consider that Bechtel’s revenues in 2000 exceeded $14 Billion while Bolivia’s entire national budget was $2.7 billion.

Where is it now?

After immense pressure from activist groups Bechtel was forced to relent and accept a token sum of about $.39 in change and everyone agreed that the contract “was terminated only because of civil unrest and the state of emergency in Cochabamba . . . ”

Today, Cochabamba is much the same as it was before this whole mess. Many are still without water and many have water only for a few hours a day and the old water system that Aguas del Tunari was going to replace is still being used. But, the people can afford their water.

My personal take on this episode and it seems to be the take of quite a few, is that while the people of Cochabamba were very ready and able to fight the battle, they weren’t prepared to administer the peace that they won.

To say that a lot has been written about these events is a vast understatement. There was far more than I could digest and write here in a cogent and coherent manner. But, that’s not the point. The point is that this is only one of the first and most publicized attempts in modern times. It won’t be the last. When water gets scarce and there’s a lot of money to be made, the concept of responsibility and humane treatment of those who can’t fend for themselves will go right out the window.

What should we take away from this? I once said to my son that a wise man learns from his mistakes but, that a wiser man still learns from someone elses.

Take away from that what you will. But take away something. Do something. Right now organizations like 350.org are mobilizing against the forces that are profiting from the destruction of our environment. The very environment without which all life on this planet will perish. Get involved. Find a group or start your own. As Carl Sagan said:

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breath the air or drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”

 

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