Water is life. But this water can lead to war. Water related troubles are not alien to today’s world. And one of the most vicious water wars occurred in 1999.
Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1999
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, lack of water caused troubles for several decades. In 1999, Cochabamba’s public water supplier, SEMAPA, was leased to an international consortium, Aguas del Tunari. The major shareholder of the consortium was multinational company Bechtel. Their main agenda was to end the water related issues of that area but that turned into a political issue. Aguas del Tunari was granted a concession to supply drinking water and sewerage services to Cochabamba, Bolivia in September 1999. But one month later, an act was passed on the regulation of water and sanitation. The act contained a set of rules that legitimised towards privatisation. As a result, water prices rose steeply.
Mass Mobilisation and Protests
This caused reactions and led to mass mobilisation of the Cochabamba’s population. Civil society groups in Bolivia formed the “Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua de la Vida” (Coalition for the Defence of Water and Life) to protest. In urban areas, protests were sparked because of the rise in water prices and in rural areas concerns were raised against the effects of law that stopped water for irrigation and domestic use.
In February and April 2000, social conflict erupted with several days of intense clashes between ‘guerreros del agua’ (water warriors) and the police. These clashes culminated in the declaration of a National State of Siege.
Eventually, Aguas del Tunari was expelled. Control of SEMAPA was conferred to representatives from municipality, trade union and Coordinadora. The fundamentals of the hybrid company were rewritten in a challenging participatory process.
Cochabamba Water War contributed major changes in Bolivia’s water sector. It has also changed respective laws, establishment of ministry of Environment and Water, and the country as a whole.
Policy Reforms After the War
- In 2000, the pro-privatisation Law 2029 was revoked and rewritten as Drinking Water and Sanitation Services Law (2066). It was the result of negotiations between social movements and the state during the water war.
- In 2004, same principles were applied to the irrigation sector (Law 2878) which recognised decentralised irrigation governance. Both laws support indigenous people and farm labourers from dispossession of water.
- In 2009, Bolivian constitution was changed. The new constitution considers water as a basic right of life and bans typical methods of privatisation.
Sustainability and public participations are declared to be as the responsibility of state as well as universal access to water. Cochabamba Water War certainly changed the basic rights approach demand action by the state and challenged community management at the same time.