How a water war in Bolivia led to the reversal of privatization

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In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the lack of water has caused conflicts for decades. In 1999, Cochabamba's public water supplier, SEMAPA, was leased to the international consortium Aguas del Tunari. The major shareholder of the consortium was the multinational company Bechtel. In the course of the privatization procedures, independent water and irrigation systems and autonomous water services were threatened with expropriation. Water prices rose steeply as a result. In response, several civil society groups formed the "Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida" (Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life). Protests against these policies were fierce, lasted several months, and raised the issue to national and international levels.

Eventually, Aguas del Tunari was expelled. Control of SEMAPA was transferred to representatives from the municipality, the trade union, and the Coordinadora (though these arrangements have subsequently changed). The statutes of the hybrid company were rewritten in a challenging participatory process, but SEMAPA is still known for its lack of efficiency and transparency. Moverover, the state is currently trying to extend its sphere of control into the water sector. However, the so-called Cochabamba Water War contributed to major changes in Bolivia's water sector, the respective laws, the establishment of a national Ministry of the Environment and Water, and of the country as a whole.

Key points of Bolivian policy reforms sparked by the Cochabamba Water War:

  • In 2000, the pro-privatization Law 2029 was canceled and rewritten as Drinking Water and Sanitation Services Law (2066). It was the result of negotiations between social movements and the state during the water wars. It recognized marginalized communities' rights to use water and differentiated them from capitalist activities, which had to be authorized and were subject to fees.
  • In 2004, similar principles were applied to the irrigation sector (Law 2878), which recognized decentralized irrigation governance. Both laws support indigenous people and farm laborers from being dispossessed of water. At the same time, they contributed to the formalization of water management, which tends to favor commercial management over community management.
  • The Bolivian constitution was changed in 2009. Prior to 2009, water supply concessions could be granted for up to 40 years. The new constitution considers water a basic right of life and bans the typical methods of privatization and leasing of water services to for-profit entities.

Sustainability and public participation are declared to be the responsibility of the state as well as universal access to water. To which extent these intentions will actually be reflected in reality remains to be seen, however. The responsibilities coming with this basic-rights approach demand action by the state and challenge community management at the same time.

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