In April 2000, thousands of citizens of Cochabamba – Bolivia’s third largest city – blocked roads to protest the privatization of the city’s local water system, rallying around the central battle cry, “Water is life!” The government canceled the concession contract and returned water to municipal control under the watchful eye of the Coordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life, the social movement organization that emerged to coordinate the protests. Community leaders set about the task of elaborating a new way to provide water services that would build upon the experiences with non- hierarchical forms of decision-making that emerged during what was often described as a “Water War.” One thing was clear: while privatization was not the answer, no one wanted to return to the former model of “public” utility, which was widely considered to be inefficient and corrupt.
Based on experiences with previous episodes of nationalization in Bolivian history, water justice activists in Bolivia insist that public (read: state) forms of management are not a true alternative to privatization because they simply replace one form of hierarchical management with another. Instead, the opposite of privatization is the “social re-appropriation of wealth,” which entails the collectivization of property and the self-organization of water users. As Oscar Olivera, a spokesperson from the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, known as La Coordinadora explains, this difference between water justice activists in Bolivia and elsewhere is crucial: “Activists in the North tend to focus on issues related to management, while we (in Bolivia) are primarily concerned with the struggle for property rights.”
The notions of collective property that have emerged in the struggle for water are inspired by the experiences with communal water management of two key participants in the Cochabamba “Water War”: small irrigating farmers’ associations (see section on “uses and customs”), and community-run water systems. Utterly neglected by state authorities and lacking basic services, most of the communities in the poor barrios of the southern zone of the city of Cochabamba have built their own independent water systems provisioned by wells that are managed by independent cooperatives, informal committees, or neighbourhood councils elected by the residents. Since 2004, many of these community-run water systems have been organized in the Association of Community Water Systems of the South (ASICA-Sur), which has given a collective voice to the citizens who lack public water services.
More recently, ASICA-Sur has secured financing from the European Union to build independent water systems in Districts 7 and 14. These independent systems will buy water in bulk from the public water company, but will be managed by the users. As the President of ASICA-Sur, Abraham Grendydier explains, it has taken the public water company too long to respond to their demands so they have decided to take matters into their own hands. While the construction of independent water systems risks further fracturing the urban water network, in the long term it may be the only way to meet the goal of “water for all.”
Demands for communal ownership and management have also translated into the demand for "social control" within the re-municipalized water company, SEMAPA. While former boards of directors were staffed exclusively by professionals and politicians, between April 2002 and October 2005, three members of the seven-member board have been elected from the macro-districts of the city. Many of the problems that have historically plagued the public utility, however, have remained unresolved by the limited degree of social control. While the public water company has performed better than would have been expected under private control, coverage rates remain low (46 percent in 2005), and services are intermittent. Opinion is divided on the reasons for the perceived failure of social control to improve the utility’s performance. For some, it is the fact that the mayor controls the budget. Others highlight the lack of capacity of the citizen directors, the over-politicization of the public utility, or the problem of corruption. Yet others blame the conditions attached to a loan by the Inter- American Development Bank that have stymied attempts to democratize the utility because they prioritized administrative reform and repairs to the existing network instead of making visible improvements to water services. Nearly all agree, however, that Cochabamba’s water problems are linked to the lack of public investment. Efforts to outline alternatives and debate the future of the local water company continue.
- If a central problem for SEMAPA today is financing, what kinds of solutions to this problem can we imagine and implement?
- What are some alternatives to loans from international financial institutions, whose conditions continue to frustrate progress?
- If the concept of “the Commons” is linked to democracy, how do we define “democratic management” in the context of a public water utility?
Notes and Links