Bolivia Water War: Water is an important aspect of all living creatures’ survival, and taking away the right to a natural resource that flows freely can lead to aggression.
The Bolivia Water War is also known as the Cochabamba Water War and revolved around the privatization of the city’s water supply by a company called SEMANA.
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When Did the Water War Take Place?
The Bolivia Water War took place n Cochabamba, Bolivia from 1999 to April 2000.
What Leads to Bolivia’s Water – Bolivia’s Economy?
In 1982 Bolivia was restored with the civilian rule that ended years of military dictatorship. However, it did not bring back economic stability. There was hyperinflation in 1985 in the country. It had an annual rate of 25 thousand percent. Thus foreign investors did not want to invest. The Government of Bolivia turned towards the World Bank as a means of last resort.
Thus, for the coming twenty years, all the different Bolivia governments followed the provisions of the World Bank to get and be qualified for continuous loans from them. Bolivia privatized telephone system, railway, hydrocarbon industry and national airlines, to move towards independent developments.
A state agency named SEMPA controlled the waterworks of Cochabamba before the privatization. SEMANA was put on auction by Bolivia after pressure from the World Bank for privatization without capitalization. Only a firm named Aguas del Tunari was willing to invest. One of the shareholders of the consortium was a multinational organization named Betchel. They envisioned a water network that would provide drinking water to the whole city of Cochabamba.
Without much contemplation, the then Bolivian Government, with President Hugo Banzer, agreed to the weak bargaining terms of Aguas del Tunari and signed a 2.5 billion dollars, 40-year concession. The bargaining terms said to provide sanitization and water services to the citizens of Cochabamba. It also said to generate electricity for irrigational purposes for agriculture. The implementation of the program planned by Aguas del Tunari, correlated with a plan of the Government which wanted to present a 63 million dollar package for rural development to peasants to extending electrical and telephonic services to rural areas and crop diversification.
In September 1999, Aguas del Tunari was granted rights to the water and developmental services of Cochabamba.
What is Law 2029?
Law 2029 was passed to guarantee the legality of the privatization of water by the Bolivian Government.
The law came to look as if the water supplies that never were part of SEMAPA in the first place would now be sold by Aguas del Tunari. Many feared that the law constituted the pooled water resources and water used by farmers for irrigation purposes. The nature of Law 2029 was so broad that many were concerned that a license had to be obtained from the Government even in rainwater harvesting.
Who Were the La Coordinadora?
FEDECOR or Federacion Departmental Cochabambina de Regents, with its leader Omar Fernandez, was one of the first’s to raise concerns over Law 2029. FEDECOR was made up of local professionals like environmentalists and engineers. A group of peasant farmers who mainly relied on irrigation joined them.
Later, a factory worker’s union led by Oscar Olivera also joined the FEDECOR. Together, they formed a strong and core opposition to Law 2029 and called themselves Coordinator for the Defence of Water and Life or La Coordinadora.
What Was The Main Cause Of Disagreements Between The Government And Protestors?
Law 2029 was the main cause of protests and disagreements between the protestors and the Government. Law 2029, for many, showed everything that is wrong with the neoliberal developmental strategy. The law had an obvious lack of equity, rejected the state’s role and presented an attitude that preferred foreign capital over national income. Initially, the law intended to licenses and concessions for the supply of water to 10K citizens of Cochabamba.
The political spectrum did not hold back in opposing the law. The right opposed the idea of the denationalization of enterprises that were considered strategic and vital. In contrast, the left said that the transfer of state property to the private enterprises was unconstitutional.
Since there was so much disagreement regarding the law, the Bolivian Government conducted a referendum in which 97% of individuals the privatization that the law stated.
What Lead To The Water Rate Hike?
As part of the contract, Aguas del Tulari had to pay 30 million dollars in debt accumulated by SEMANA. They began maintenance of the deteriorating water system and agreed on the expansion of the water system. A managing director, named, Didier Quint, said that they were confident that they could complete the work before the period mentioned in the contract and they to do so they had to reflect on the tariffs and increase them.
The contract also mentioned that Aguas del Tulari had agreed to work on the Misicuni dam project. The project was designed to pipe water through the mountains. The World Bank had found the idea uneconomic, and therefore, the project had been stalled. Aguas del Tulari had no interest in building the dam, but they had to do something since it was part of the contract.
Aguas del Tulari constituted engineers who lacked marketing strategy and foreigners who were unaware of how the Bolivian society and economy worked and its intricacies; hence, without much thought, they raised the water rates to about 35%, which would equate to around 20 dollars a month.
This raise seemed minuscule to the consortium’s privileged workers and the foreigners who came from developed nations. Thus, Geoffrey Thorpe, a consortium manager, said that water would be turned off if anyone would not pay the money. This raised protests.
Soon, even the middle-class homeowners, who were away from the protests, joined the poor in protests in January 2000 when they saw their water bills increase and their subsidies stripped off.
Who Was Part Of The Protests?
The main protests and uprising began in January 2000, and Oscar Olivera was amongst one of the most outspoken leaders throughout the protests. The protests consisted of various types and classes of people. They were:
- Regents: Regents were the peasant workers who had entered the city under village banners.
- Jubilados and Cholitas: Jubilados and Cholitas were retired union factory workers who joined hands with Oscar Olivera.
- Street vendors, sweatshop employees, pieceworkers, who constituted a large part of the economy, since the state-owned tin mines were closed.
- Anarchists, from the middle-class population, came from the University of Cochabamba. They denounced the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and neoliberalism.
- Cochabamba’sCochabamba’s growing population of homeless children was a major part of the protests.
The protestors halted Cochabamba’s economy with a general strike which led to a four-day shutdown. A ministerial delegation even agreed to roll back the water rates, but that did not subsidize the protests.
On 4th February 2000, the protestors were met by troops and enforcements in La Paz and Oruro. There was almost a two-day clash with the police who used tear gas. Around 200 protestors were arrested, and 70 protestors and 51 policemen were found injured.
Throughout March of 2000, the Roman Catholic Church’s Bolivian hierarchy was working as a mediator between the Government and the protestors. On the other hand, the Coordinadora made their referendum and said that 96% of fifty thousand votes wanted Aguas del Tunari’sTunari’s contract to be cancelled. However, to this, the Government said that there was nothing to negotiate.
Again, in April 2000, protestors took over the plaza of Cochabamba and many demonstration leaders, including Oscar Olivera, were arrested. They were left the next day, but some were taken to prisons far away in the forests in the next round of police arrests.
The protest spread out to other rural areas, and some started demanding other things like employment. Some police officers in four La Paz units refused to obey their superiors until a dispute was settled.
State of Emergency by President Banzer
In times of trouble and to maintain public order, the President has the right to declare a ”state of siege” or a ”state of emergency” for 90 days. If the state of siege continues beyond 90 days, it needs to be approved by congress. Also, whoever is arrested during the state of siege must be left after 90 days, until and unless a different criminal case is brought upon the person.
On 8th April 2000, President Banzer declared a state of siege. He said that it was their obligation to do so to protect law and order. This was the fifth time, since 1982, that Bolivia went under a state of siege.
- Meetings with four people were banned, and the freedom of the press was curtailed.
- Radio stations were taken over by the military and newsreaders were arrested.
- Nigh time raids and mass arrests continued.
- Twenty civic and labour union leaders were arrested.
- This havoc leads to internal exile with 40 injuries and five deaths.
9th April 2000
- Soldiers open fire in Achacachi as they met resistance and two people, including a teenage boy, were killed.
- Citizens overpowered the soldiers and attacked the military.
- They wounded a Battalion commander and an army captain.
- 800 police threw tear gas at soldiers, but the Government gave them a raise. Thus they stopped.
- The soldiers soon started asking for a raise, saying there was racial discrimination.
After many protests and uprising, the army and the Government could not do anything. Finally, Oscar Olivera signed a concord with the Government which removed Aguas del Tunari and turned the water work services to La Coordinadora. Law 2029 was repealed, and all detained protestors had to be removed.