The feature film “También La Lluvia” (“Even the Rain”) has been giving U.S. movie audiences a taste of the popular struggle against water privatization that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2000.
Drawing parallels between the exploitation of indigenous people—and their organized resistance—in colonial, neoliberal, and contemporary times, the film was shot on location in Cochabamba and features 3,000 extras drawn from the city’s poor southern hillside neighborhoods who were actual protagonists in the Water War. The main indigenous character (played by an actor/ filmmaker from El Alto) is partially modeled on Oscar Olivera, a leader of the water revolt.
Fast-forwarding eleven years, it’s both inspiring and sobering to reflect on the impact of the Water War and how much (or how little) Bolivia has changed.
The Water War was precipitated when SEMAPA, Cochabamba’s municipal water company, was sold to a transnational consortium controlled by U.S. based Bechtel, in exchange for debt relief for the Bolivian government and new World Bank loans to expand the water system. A new law also allowed Bechtel to administer water resources that SEMAPA did not even control, including the communal water systems prevalent in the ever-expanding southern periphery and in the countryside which had never been hooked into the grid. (The film draws its title from local fears that “even the rain” collected and distributed for centuries by local irrigating farmers’ associations would become subject to Bechtel’s control.)
These concerns, along with a 50% average increase in water rates for SEMAPA customers, led to the formation of the Coordinadora, a broad alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middle class professionals. Joined by the militant federation of coca growers from the Chapare, led by Evo Morales, the Coordinadora organized civic strikes, road blockades, and massive popular assemblies. They eventually forced Bechtel to abrogate its contract, return SEMAPA to public control, and withdraw its legal claim against the Bolivian government for $50 million in compensation.
This iconic struggle sparked a chain of events in Bolivia leading to the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents, and the subsequent election of Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party as a “government of the social movements.” Bolivia’s new constitution, enacted in 2009, proclaims that access to water is a human right and bans its privatization.
Outside Bolivia, the Water War helped to inspire a worldwide anti-globalization movement and provided a model for struggles against water privatization and for water justice throughout the Americas and beyond. The Bolivian government led the successful drive for UN recognition of water as a human right last year, and is currently in the forefront of a new campaign for a UN declaration against water privatization.
At the same time, Bolivia still has one of the lowest rates of access to safe drinking water (85%) and sewerage services (46%) in Latin America. And in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, the struggle to provide good quality water to a rapidly expanding population continues. While SEMAPA has more than tripled the size of its service area since 2000, at least half of the City’s residents—and 70-80% of those living in the poorer southern districts--still lack piped water and sanitation services. Those remaining outside the grid are forced to pay 5 to 10 times more than SEMAPA consumers for trucked-in water of dubious quality. Even on the grid, water service is intermittent.
Although the reconstituted SEMAPA includes elected community representatives on its board of directors, it has been plagued by continuing problems of mismanagement, corruption, and inefficiency. The system loses an estimated 55% of its water to leaks and clandestine hook-ups and just last year overcame a $3 million cash deficit (in part by laying off 150 workers).
Frustrated with both the private and state water management models, residents of the City’s southern zones are increasingly relying on traditional community-run water systems as an alternative. These neighborhoods—which were the main protagonists of the Water War--have built their own independent water systems, with wells managed by elected water committees, cooperatives, or community councils. Drawing on residents’ organizing experience as ex-miners as well as their collective traditions as indigenous farmers, the water committees have established autonomous and participatory water distribution systems, that collaborate to varying degrees with SEMAPA.
Since 2004, many of the local water groups have affiliated through ASICA-Sur (the Association of Community Water Systems of the South), an umbrella organization that provides technical assistance, coordination, and funding. ASICA-Sur has secured EU financing to develop independent water systems in targeted neighborhoods, which seek to buy water at bulk rates from SEMAPA but remain community controlled—a new model of social-public water management.
With Cochabamba’s water table dwindling rapidly due to population growth compounded by global warming, the need for massive public investment to develop new water sources is critical. The long-delayed Misicuni dam, reservoir, and hydroelectric power plant project is now under construction with partial funding from the Bolivian government, but many doubt that its projected 2013 completion date is achievable. Elsewhere in Bolivia, the government is also providing $100 million for irrigation and water projects in 327 municipalities.
Among those who think the Bolivian government should be doing more to implement the right to water and similar promises enshrined in the Constitution is Oscar Olivera. In a recent “Open Letter” to Evo Morales, Olivera and other Water War activists have openly broken with the MAS leadership whom they accuse of continuing neoliberal economic policies and anti-democratic politics, betraying the popular movements that brought them to power.
Olivera laments that Morales’ recent policies such as the Gasolinazo—a (failed) attempt to hike gasoline prices by 73% that drove up transportation and food costs and sparked massive protests —have encouraged divisions between the city and countryside, consumers and merchants, transportation workers and users, and salaried and unsalaried workers. These sectors, he says, “have now lost sight of their true common enemies: the big mining, hydrocarbons, and financial corporations, who have benefitted most from this government.” Indeed, the coalition of popular organizations and constituencies that came together during the Water Wars, consolidated nationally during the Gas Wars, and achieved political power in 2005 has now effectively fragmented, raising significant questions about the future of Bolivia’s “process of change.”
Looked at another way, what Olivera once said about SEMAPA’s difficulties could be a metaphor for the challenges and contradictions that Bolivia faces today. “The problem is, we know how to resist. But we are only now learning how to construct something new.”
If you missed “También La Lluvia,” you can rent it from Netflix later this month. As for the next chapter in real-life Bolivia, as in the film and in the actual Water War, the Bolivian people will be the protagonists. Stay tuned.