The following piece is an early submission for the Stop Veolia Zine Project. SVS is still accepting short research articles, stories, interviews, illustrations, comics, photographs, drawings, anything that you think helps to tell the story of Veolia and resistances to its corporatization of public services. Deadline for submissions is May 15th.
The Rising Water in Bolivia and Latin America
Over the past decade, we have removed bad governments, kicked out corporations and rejected many World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies after they stole our natural resources and ruined an already crippled economy with their “shock therapy” prescriptions. We also successfully waged the historic “Cochabamba Water War of 2000” that recovered our water from an international consortium. The people of Uruguay won the first battle in the polls introducing the right to water in their constitution. Their example has spread all over Latin America.
Social movements have mobilized and have changed the political face of this continent. But the struggles haven’t stopped. Water embraces and strengthens other urgent challenges that are happening now across the continent. Water is the one issue where everything intersects; it crosses over into political and economic issues in every region and in every country. People’s struggles over water are about having their voices heard, having better living conditions, establishing their rights to basic survival needs, and determining their own political and economic futures. That is what we call direct democracy. In Bolivia, the water rights struggle has given birth to a political shift. Water has become a symbol of our struggle for political and economic autonomy and for regaining our dignity.
The Challenges of Winning
In 2004, we recognized in the South that there was more North-South collaboration on water rights than South-South relations. This inspired the creation of the Red VIDA, an inter-American water network with founding members (including the U.S. and Canada) from both American continents. It has been very important to work with people across the Americas who are redefining the meaning of “cooperation” as an equal collaboration among water warriors with horizontal rather than vertical decision-making and with our northern colleagues respecting our region-specific strategies for reaching our mutual goals. It is largely out of these years of collaboration and network-building that potential public alternatives to privatization have emerged.
Public-Public and Public-Community Partnerships
We have found that the best way to fight against the privatization of water utilities is by improving our water systems, making them accountable to the population, involving social movements in the effort, and having workers and the community participate directly in this work. One very important alternative to privatization is the formation of Public-Public Partnerships to manage water systems.
In August 2008 we organized a regional water seminar in Cochabamba with numerous representatives from various water movements in the Americas. We got together because, for a long time, we had wondered how to address the challenges facing us. We were tired of just resisting with so little space left to build. At some point in our conversations, we discovered that we were exhausted and that all our energies were going to create more “blockades” to privatization, with no energy left to create or imagine a different way.
It was generally agreed that democratization of water management was far from a reality and that strategies and political opportunities for developing management alternatives continued to be elusive. The experience of many participants was that there was rarely sufficient financing, or support by governments, state institutions, donors, and international organizations, for the implementation of alternatives – despite many inspiring examples. The movements’ evaluation of reclaimed utilities in Bolivia and elsewhere was that popular mobilization had not met the challenges of government resistance, institutional corruption, and the technical and financial weaknesses of the existing structures.
So we created the Platform for Public and Community Water Systems (Plataforma APC). We recognized that public utilities are not only ones that belong to the state or municipalities, but also those run by the community; and that we really do not need intervention of the state’s bureaucracy to create solidarity among us.
The Platform for Public and Community Water Systems was organized in 2009 as an association of social and labor organizations, public institutions, and public water utilities working to strengthen and improve public water systems in the Americas. Its founding members include Engineers without Borders from Cataluña, Spain; the Commissions for the Defense of Water and Life from Bolivia and Uruguay; Food and Water Watch from the U.S.; Red VIDA, an intercontinental network of organizations in the Americas working for defense of water; and other organizations and utilities working on water issues in the Americas.
The purpose of The Platform is to support and create public-public partnerships across the Americas based on principles of public participation and accountability, transparency, and direct participation of utility workers and members of social movements. The Platform is currently supporting initiatives in several countries in the Americas.
This comes at a time when the World Bank and its sister financial institutions, recognizing their past failures in water privatization, are seeking new forms of such privatization under the guise of public collaboration – for example, promoting Public-Private Partnerships in countries where they have failed in the past. But the water movements have also progressed, from resistance to construction of alternatives and to just and equitable propositions that serve the people and preserve their right to water.
There is much yet to be done. We have learned many lessons from our past successes and failures. We continue to join in collaboration with our colleagues around the world to find new ways of guaranteeing that all people look forward to life and a planet that is sustainable.
In the midst of our fights to control our own resources, a very important development is the nature of connections that have begun between people. This is one of the things we are recovering from what globalization has stolen. It is not just about the economic policies imposed on us; it is also about bringing us into contact with one another. We are building alliances among ourselves that respect differences and the diversity of experiences. It serves to broaden our understanding of daily challenges we each face, while building a network of support that keeps us strong.
The demands of the people for access to water infrastructure are part of social demands for new models of economic development. Such development must emphasize the transversal character of water and the challenge to construct new Andean government-governed relations. But the search for new formulae to co-manage natural resources (of which water is a central component) between popular organizations and the state, have only just begun.
The struggle over who controls water is ongoing. What we’re fighting for in Bolivia and Latin America now is to put together effective, participatory control by the people over our social resources of water, health and education, as an alternative to private control. We know that continued action in our streets and our communities is essential to social change. In Latin America, that involves the politics of mass mobilization combined with construction of autonomous alternatives to old models.
Marcela Olivera is a water commons organizer. After graduating from the Catholic University in Cochabamba, Bolivia, she worked for four years in Cochabamba as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, the organization that fought and defeated water privatization in Bolivia. Since 2004 Marcela has been developing and consolidating an inter-American citizens’ network on water justice named “Red VIDA.”