Cochabamba wins final battle of water war

Before I came to Bolivia, Cochabamba was one of the few city names that would spark recognition amongst my activist friends. "Oh, yeah, that’s where they had a ‘Water war’ that defeated that big multinational."

The story of how a Bolivian city had taken on a US corporate giant, Bechtel ,who had privatised their water supply and won (!) had managed to cross continents to reach them. I felt slight envy when I said I was probably going to learn spanish there.

Yesterday Cochabamba was back in the news again. This time because international pressure by activists around the world in support of Bolivia had forced the US multinational Bechtel (whose contract had been so rudely broken by popular protest) to back down and end a $50 million legal suit that they had filed against Bolivia in a secretive international trade court.

Bechtel with a fellow consortium member Abengoa of Spain instead agreed to accept just 2 Bolivianos (about 15 pence) in compensation. Just a little bit of a climbdown, I think you would agree….

The deal will consolidate Cochabamba’s reputation in the annals of the alternative globalisation movement. Its fame probably prompted an editor of an alternative magazine to ask a friend to write an article on the elections from the perspective of the "streets of Cochabamba". No doubt the North American editor imagined a city still in barricades, its residents continually in bandanas to ward off tear gas, marching through streets where no brand name would dare to tread.

The reality of course is rather different. Cochabamba is really a very quiet small attractive provincial town where most people shop, eat and go to work like anywhere else. It even boasts a Burger King in its high street, whose queues hardly suggest a population on the cutting edge of resistance to US imperialism.

During the gas protests in May and June last year, very little happened in Cochabamba compared to El Alto and La Paz. At times it is hard to imagine that the balmy, laid-back, flower-scented city was once paralysed by its own population, who fought government troops and risked lives to throw out a privatised water utility (a reality that we have lived for some years in the UK without protest).

But perhaps it’s in the ‘ordinariness’ of Cochabamba that the lessons lie for what prompted the struggle against Bechtel and why the victory yesterday is so important.

For the "water war" didn’t take place as a result of a highly politicised population ready to defend its natural resources. It came about as a result of people, who had largely taken to the streets before, deciding that they had no option but to resist.

The granting of the contract to Aguas del Tunari (majority shareholder, Suez) to run Cochabamba’s water systems came about as a condition for World Bank debt relief in the mid-90s. It was done without transparency, and with a contract that allowed foreign companies to make minimum investment and yet guarantee a 15% rate of profit. It was typical of a process of liberalisation and deregulation of the economy that had been followed by Bolivia since 1985, which had earned it a reputation as a "model pupil" by the International Monetary Fund.

But whilst it may have been typical of so-called "neo-liberal" policies followed by Bolivia, it proved to be its apogée.

Soon after being awarded the contract, Aguas del Tunari put up water rates by an average of 50% and even started to expropriate communal water systems in the countryside that had been run by local communities for generations. Soon women responsible for running irrigation systems in the countryside were marching on Cochabamba, and found themselves united with city residents brandishing their latest water bills.

Talks of charging people for collecting rain-water turned anger into rage. Friends who were there said that even rich middle-class started to blockade the streets with their 4x4s. Initial calls for changes in company policies soon became a demand to take water back into public hands.

Initially the Government sent out troops to stop the protests. But the supposedly quiet tranquil city of Cochabamba refused to back down. Eventually the Government had no option but to end the contract and return water to public hands. Bruised by being defeated by a small Bolivian town, the US multinational giant Bechtel took revenge by initiating a legal demand for $50 million despite only making $1 million investment.

Cochabamba proved to be a turning point. Many people had put up with a series of privatisations during the 90s that had seen a few multinationals and national businessmen making big profits. But privatising water proved to be one step too far. Water as a resource for life and one that is largely run in a communal way by indigenous communities could not become yet another commodity.

People started saying "if they privatise water, they will soon start charging us for air too." Suddenly the true nature of the economic policies that Bolivia had been following were laid bare, exposed by running water. It became clear to many people that Bolivia’s natural resources were being sold off, enriching a few and impoverishing the vast majority.

Moreover the victory against one of the world’s most powerful corporations showed that it was possible to fight a corporate globalised agenda and win. Countless social movement leaders have told me that the "Water war" in Cochabamba was an inspiration and prompted a resurgence of belief and a desire to fight for social justice amongst the social movements.

As a result, the Cochabamba water war fed into a rising current of mobilisations such as the struggles of the "coca-growers" in Chapare in particular in 2001 and 2002, the Gas war in 2003, the fight to expel water multinational Suez from El Alto in 2005, the second Gas War in 2005. Ultimately the movements fed into popular currents that led to the resounding victory of indigenous leader Evo Morales and his party MAS in the recent elections.

The final battle of the "water war" which took place yesterday when Bechtel caved under international pressure could easily be lost in the big focus on Evo Morales and predictions on what he will do to try and meet the huge expectations placed upon him by Bolivians. But it could equally prove to a turning point if we focus on its true significance.

For what it showed was the resounding power of international solidarity when it is exerted in support of the struggles of social movements in Bolivia. Reports in a Government memo I saw in our office showed how the campaign was a significant factor in Bechtel’s decision to give up the fight for revenge. Whilst the first battle of the water war showed the power of social movements in Bolivia, the last battle showed the power of the worldwide alternative globalisation movement.

It’s a power that we will need to exercise in the next few months as Evo Morales comes to power.  The last few weeks have shown very clearly how his government will be caught between the expectations for social justice by movements in Bolivia and the pressures to be moderate and to protect foreign investments by Western Governments. 

On one hand, we had Evo Morales on a world tour where he became famous for his stripey jumper and his comments of reassurance to governments like Spain and France that their investments would be secure.

On the other hand, we had a series of highly participative transition committee meetings preparing the MAS government agenda here, where those attending that I spoke to shared their palpable excitement that they were involved in truly remaking Bolivia. They were putting forward policies which would see Bolivia taking back control of their natural resources, empowering the poor, and MAS becoming a Government of those who have been excluded from wealth and power.

In this tension, international voices that encourage and give support to Evo Morales taking necessary radical steps to tackle structural injustice will be crucial. In this it is not a question of giving support to MAS which will of course make mistakes and whose policies will contain contradictions, but more to giving leverage to the social movements who have got him to where he is today.

It may involve giving support to "nationalising" gas by saying we will fight any legal demands that the multinational oil and gas companies threaten in response. It may mean pushing our governments to end conditions to privatise water that are tied to aid to Bolivia. It could take struggles in the US to stop the administration trying to enforce a free trade agreement in exchange for free market access for certain Bolivian goods. It may even include highlighting US attempts to destabilise the country, something that sadly can’t be ruled out.

Whatever form it may take, it will involve very ordinary people around the world. People like the residents of the quiet town of Cochabamba who realise when it is time to resist, and who are willing to take on powerful governments and companies believing that we can win.



  1. Arrius January 30, 2006 at 9:08 am - Reply

    Amigo, muy bonita tu página, pero hasta ahí llegas … creo que tus apreciaciones son un tanto superficiales y sería interesante que puedas profundizar más en los siguientes aspectos …
    El precio del agua bajo en Cochabamba?
    Se mejoró la distribución de agua?
    Se mejoró la infraestructura?
    Se renovó la infraestructura?
    Se eliminó la corrupción de la empresa de aguas?
    Los dirigentes que llevaron a esta estupidez han hecho algo más por este pueblo?
    I know that you know spanih, so man, let´s make some interest comments about real material, not about information for europeans and gringos with good feelings.

  2. Nick Buxton January 31, 2006 at 7:17 am - Reply

    Hi Arrius, you are right that that is the next part of the story, something I want to look into more before writing about it. As far as I am aware costs have gone down and there have been improvements to the infrastructure but it hasn’t gone far enough according to the Coordinadora who led the struggle against privatisation. The same communities especially in the impoverished Zona sur who fought privatisation are now fighting to get a certain group of corrupt unionists out of the public company who they say are blocking effective change. From those I talked to, they feel that the public company was not set up in a fully accountable way and are trying to rectify this. Their lessons will be crucial for all those fighting for publicly accountable water utilities. But when it’s successful, it can make a huge difference. This week I met a person from Grenoble who took their water utility back into community hands from the French multinational Suez, and now have some of the lowest prices and highest standards for water quality in the whole of France.

  3. Rosy Townsend July 23, 2006 at 9:54 am - Reply

    Hi Nick
    this is a query more than a comment – couldn’t get your email address.
    I’ve been doing a search following reading your WDM autumn article.
    I’m preparing to contribute to the International Falcon Movement camp in Maidstone july 29- aug 9.
    5,000 (4,000 young people, 1,000 adult) participants – two-thirds international delegates – 60 countries – I believe inc gp from Bolivia. It’s on the MDGs.
    I’m helping on the Water theme. I’m going to be featuring ‘Dirty Aid, Dirty Water’ – I have also been told Hilary Benn is visiting the camp at some point. Any ‘must do’ advice Please! – I’m keen but inarticulate – I’ll ‘do my best’ But!
    Any chance you could visit – my main day for this is afternoon monday July 31.
    We would pay expenses.
    Will Oscar Olivera still be in UK then?
    Do hope you’re not offended by me putting these questions to you.
    Thanks alot
    best wishes anyway

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