Water Woes Unsolved 11 Years After People's 'Triumph' Over Privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia

cochabamba bolivia street scene photo
A street scene in Cochabamba. Photo: Corrado Scropetta / Creative Commons.

When poor Bolivians rose up against the privatization of their water system, taking to the streets to demand -- successfully -- that it be returned to local control, their fight created ripples around the world. But 11 years later, according to a new report, many of the people of Cochabamba still lack access to clean water without paying an arm and a leg for it.Back in 2001, I interviewed a representative of the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life (known locally as La Coordinadora), a Bolivian organization whose spokesman had won a Goldman Prize for the group's sustainable-development efforts. His story was an inspiring, and disturbing, one.

Government 'Sold Water' To Multinationals
"The government privatized water to benefit the interests of multinationals," economist Gabriel Herbas, a member of La Coordinadora, told me for an article in Sierra magazine. "The coalition tried talking to politicians and going to the media, but it wasn't until we took to the streets by the thousands that the government began paying attention."

The privatization caused water rates to soar by up to 300 percent, amounting to a fifth of the monthly minimum wage, Cochabamba residents said. Their mass protests in the Bolivian city drew a violent crackdown, but eventually caused the government to cancel the privatization deal in April 2000, leading to an improvement in water distribution and fewer shortages.

More Than Half Still Have No Piped Water Supply
These gains were short-lived, however, according to a report this week by the environmental news platform Tierramérica via IPS News:

Only 326,504 people, representing 48 percent of the population of Cochabamba, have piped water service, and the poorest are forced to purchase drinking water at exorbitant prices. Meanwhile, sanitation service coverage extends to only 48 percent of the city's inhabitants, according to the municipal drinking water and sanitation company, Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA) ... [which] provides service for less than 16 hours a day.

The publicly owned SEMAPA has failed to solve the city's water-supply issues due to a lack of support and funding from higher-level government authorities, Tierramérica said.

"In the case of Bolivia, the private and state models have both failed," Carlos Crespo, a researcher at the Centre for Higher University Studies, told the news service, proposing a decentralized, consumer-managed system to avoid corruption.

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