City without drains

By Published On: November 26, 2005Categories: Privatisation1 Comment on City without drains

The new clean toilet block at the school looked very tempting. But as that ominous urgent heat flush ran through my body and bowels, it instead seemed to be taunting me. For it was a ceramic white elephant – a spurned untouched toilet waiting for a water or sewage connection.

I had cleverly chosen the worst place to have my first Bolivian bout of diarrhoea. I was on a visit with a British actor, Damian Lewis, and Christian Aid film crew to see districts of El Alto without water and sewerage. So when I grabbed one of the teachers, and clenching my buttocks said: "Are there any other working toilets near here?" she looked me as if I was being daft. But isn’t your trip about seeing districts without toilets, her shaking head suggested mockingly.

So I hurtled across a rubbish-swept field, dodging two cameraman to crouch behind a small crumbling brick wall. It wasn’t to be the last dash for diarrhoeadom. I felt a bit like dog marking my territory through various districts of El Alto.

I can’t say I appreciated it at the time, but it did eventually bring home to me to the reality of life in a big city without water or sewerage. That night as I sweatily drifted in and out of a feverish typhoid-filled sleep, I could at least run for relief to a bathroom with a toilet and running water.

"My children frequently have stomach problems," said Señora Samtusa for the eighth take in an interview with Damian Lewis to camera. You could see why. Behind her was a rusty steel drum collecting water from the roof. In front of her was a deep well, only yards away from a small ditch clearly used as a toilet.

Even in the biting El Alto air which numbs most senses, you could smell the fetid smell of faeces. We were told that the raw sewage could seep into the well. Children over-excited by the large group of over-equipped gringos ran around and past the ditch without hesitation.

We were only half an hours drive from La Paz and in one of the biggest cities of Bolivia, but the contrast in peoples’ lives was shocking. Both the school and Señora Samtusa’s house lay in El Alto Chijimi district, a "barrio" of dirt-track roads and very basic brick houses divided into uniform plots by mud walls and plastic bag littered fields. The beautiful snow-capped cordillera mountains that framed the horizon seemed out of place.

As we talked to teachers and residents, it was clear the situation was even worse than many other districts in the impoverished city of El Alto. The school is the only one in the district but isn’t recognised by the educational authority and is entirely run by volunteers.

Nearly all services fail to reach the district whose residents are fairly recent indigenous immigrants from the countryside and often without work or money. The fee for each family is 15 Bolivianos a month (I pound) but the teacher explained that some parents couldn’t even afford to pay that.

As I entertained the children fighting to have their pictures taken, it struck me that the district was rather like a child in a playground who is neglected and isolated by other children. Exclusion from the basics of city life engrained into the very streets.

Unfortunately El Chijimi district isn’t the only district still excluded from basic services. We headed onto Ventanilla district, where a young 26-year old doctor, Rosalba Gonzales, voluntarily runs a clinic in another district without running water or sewerage.

She also not surprisingly talked of a high level of water-related illnesses, and of feeling so overwhelmed at times that she frequently felt like giving up.  She managed to keep going because of support from her family and friends, and because she knew that without her the district would have no-one.

El Chijimi and Ventanilla district are both results of a hugely expanding city that is unable to support the estimated 30,000 immigrants that arrive each year from the Bolivian countryside.  Whilst the flat open expanse of the Altiplano provides a seemingly-limitless ground for expansion, the investment is not there for building an infrastructure of basic services fast enough to cope.

In the mid 1990s, the World Bank and IMF put forward privatisation of basic services as one of the answers. The "carrot" that was held out was the promise of big foreign investment. The "stick" was the threat that Bolivia would lose its chance of debt relief if it refused. The theory was that privatising the water and energy utilities would bring in investment to expand the network and lead to more efficient management of water and basic services.

The reality was rather different. Only one company made a bid for the utility in 1997 – Aguas del Illimani (AISA) whose major shareholder was the French multinational water company, Suez. They committed to expanding the drinking water and sewerage network to 100% and 61% of El Alto respectively.

However they conveniently defined El Alto to be largely the city already serviced by the utilties, placing vast areas of El Alto outside their "concession area." They failed to even meet their limited commitments to expand the network – only achieving 52,000 drinking water connections compared to a promise of 71,752 in the first five years of the contract.

As for surges of foreign investment, about 70 to 80% of all the investment came not from the company but in the form of concessional loans and grants from International Institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Fund. Meanwhile Aguas del Illimani was guaranteed a 13% profit, which helped see Suez’s overall global profits rise in 2003 to 39,622 million Euros ($51,508 million dollars), which was 31 times the total value of Bolivia’s exports in 2003.

The only way this could be achieved was through rising prices on an impoverished population. As a result, the rates for connections to drinking water and sewage systems rose to between $335 and $445 dollars, which is the equivalent of nine minimum wage salaries in Bolivia. Many people in El Alto don’t even earn the minimum wage. Even if they did it would be like demanding poor people in the UK  pay between £6,000 and £8,000 to start receiving water!

Not surprisingly the residents of El Alto eventually said enough was enough, and as a result of major protests in January 2005, forced the Government to end the contract with AISA. Negotiations are currently under way to audit the firm before setting up a new utility, however international pressure is already under way to force Bolivia to accept a public-private partnership to run its water utility.

In the words of the El Alto Residents Association (FEJUVE), " "In the world, only 5% of drinking water utilities have been privatized. Why, then do you make it a condition that we follow this path after having seen the abuses we have suffered?…Why not take some responsibility and help us build a new type of company where private greed and corruption of whatever nature are absent?"

Pablo Solón, who advises FEJUVE says: "What we have learnt is that companies are more interested in profit than providing water for all poor people. When it comes to it, they prefer to give it to neighbourhoods who consume and pay more. That is unacceptable. Water is a fundamental human right. Therefore the priority must be giving access to water for everybody, especially poor people."

Meanwhile, families like those of Señora Samtusa are still without water. What even the multinational water companies are realising is that it is difficult to make money out of poor people.  Yet clearly money is needed to expand the network to give something we take for granted to everyone.

A report by a French NGO, Frances Liberté says that just 1% of arms sales would provide more than enough money to provide free drinking water to the world’s poor. Is it too much to ask that governments take this tiny step? When I hear Bush talking about fighting on in Iraq and Tony Blair talking about the need to replace Britain’s nuclear deterrent against an unknown enemy, it is clear what the answer is. In our world weapons are valued more than water.


One Comment

  1. alex mitrani November 30, 2005 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    Hi Nick, I thought this was a very interesting article. I am shocked, but not surprised, by what the the water companies have been up to – although it sounds to me like the underlying problem might be that the government has been unwilling or unable to develop and push through a proper solution to the needs of the people. It seems that many of these large companies will take what they are allowed to take, leaving the social aspects of the problem up to government to enforce. Sorry to hear that you are ill – hope you get better soon! Alex.

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