We’re more about making money than making things. -Stephen Bechtel
There is a movie that looks very interesting about the Water Wars in Cochabamba called Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain). The plot is that a film about Columbus is being made in Cochabamba exposing all the horrible atrocities that came with his “discovery” of America. Meanwhile the making of the film is hampered by protests and riots against the take over of water systems in Cochabamba by the Bechtel Corporation. I haven’t seen the movie, but the idea of linking past exploitation to present and seeing them juxtaposed sounds like an interesting one to explore. The title of the film (and this post) is a reference to the fact that under privatization people would be charged by Aguas del Turani, a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, for collecting rainwater.
So, how did this happen? The story exposes some of the worst of the manipulative practices of the World Bank and Multinational corporations in developing countries. Water had been a problem in Cochabamba for decades as the population of the city continued to swell, reaching 500,000 at the time of the Water Wars in 1999. Corruption, scandals and lack of funding left the issues unresolved over the decades. One year prior to the conflict the public water system only reached 60% of the city’s citizens, the remaining people received water from self-organized wells and hookups or private distributors at exorbitant prices.(58)
The beginnings of the conflict are in a 1996 agreement between the government and World Bank to privatize Cochabamba’s water supply. World Bank threatened to withhold $600 million in debt relief if they did not agree to the plan. The agreement gave Aguas del Turani control over rural irrigation systems and community wells that had been built and financed by the local community. Villa San Miguel, a town just outside Cochabamba, financed and built their own water system that provided water to 210 families for $2-5 a month to cover costs for the pump and maintenance. After taking over the company immediately raised the rates, installed metering equipment and charged the people for the installation (59).
In a city where the monthly minimum wage is $60, many Cochabambinos found meeting water costs of $15-20 per month impossible.
Aiding the process of privatization was a law passed by the government, the Water Law 2029, which “favored the use of water by international companies for mining, agriculture, and electrical purpose over human consumption” (59). This paved the way for Bechtel which is
over a century old and works in everything from railroads, mines and oil to airports, defense and aerospace facilities. It is the largest construction company on the planet with 19,000 projects in 140 countries, including every continent except Antarctica (61).
Even when Bechtel representatives heard protests from the streets during a festive contract-signing party, Bolivian president and former dictator Hugo Banzer told them, “I’m used to that sort of background music” (57). Unfortunately for Bechtel and Banzer the people would not be denied so easily. Coordinated protests and blockades against the privatization began in January 2000. The government responded with brutal violence against protestors for months. The persistence of the grassroots organizations and coordinated efforts to maintain blockades and protests in the face of repression from police and military eventually forced the authorities to change Law 2029 and made the water company public.
There were still many obstacles and difficulties in managing and improving the water system, but now the “slow process of democratization of the public water company” was in its beginning stages (68). It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Bechtel would drop its claims to $50 million from the Bolivian government after international campaigns and protests. “Bechtel left with a symbolic 30 cents in their pocket” (69).
As Dangl points out the conflict in Cochabamba is part of a global issue concerning the depletion of water resources and increasing conflict over water rights as private industry seeks to profit off the crisis.
If the population continues to grow at the current rate, total human usage of water will reach 100 percent by the middle of the 21st century…More than a billion people, 20 percent of the global population, currently lack access to safe drinking water. At the same time,, around 70 percent of all fresh water utilized by humans from lakes, aquifers, and rivers is used for agriculture (57).
Many have predicted and continue to predict that wars will be fought over water in the future because of this situation. What we ignore at our peril is that these wars have already begun. Dangl concludes with a quote from Uruguyan historian Eduardo Galeano on his own country’s struggle for water rights,
More than five centuries have passed since Columbus. How long can we go on trading gold for glass beads? (70-71)