Uncovering the Bolivian Water War 15 Years Later

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Bolivian Water War. This moment in political history taught the world much about water and the surprising increase in the privatization of water around the world.

Brief History Surrounding the Bolivian Water War

The notion to privatize water started around the early 1990s. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implemented privatization through loan conditions and agreements with developing countries. These privatized services would be offered through US and European–based companies. The push for privatization stems from the supposed positive results, such as increasing the efficiency, quality, reliability and affordability of water services to the citizens of countries.

One country affected was Bolivia. Implementing the privatization of the water service was a difficult one. Bolivian society collectively owned the water sources in the country. In 1999, the World Bank recommended privatizing water to one particular municipal city in Bolivia, Cochabamba.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the water service was provided by a municipal company called Servicio Municipal del Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SENIAPA). The service was transferred to International Water, a subsidiary of Bechtel, a US company, and owner of the company Aguas del Tunari, which operated the service in Cochabamba.

Bolivian Congress passed the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law that effectively allowed privatization of water and the halting of government subsidies to municipal utilities in October 1999. In Cochabamba, water rates began to rise, where most of the population in the city could not afford the price. Cochabamba is situated in a semi-desert region in Bolivia; therefore, water is a priceless resource.

Around January 2000, the residents of Cochabamba decided to protest and called for the protection of universal water rights for everyone. The protests continued over a period of months until April. The government revoked the privatization legislation; Bechtel filed a lawsuit against Bolivia for compensation. However, Bechtel withdrew the lawsuit that it had filed with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in 2006.

Future of Water Privatization

The Bolivian case highlighted one attempt of many to privatize the service of water in developing countries. For developed countries, there is a different kind of privatization happening.

Citizens of developed countries have been fighting against the privatization of water through the bottling service. Bottling water commercially first started in France.

In the United States and Canada, bottling water has met some resistance. Recently in Oregon, residents of Hood River County want a say over whether Nestlé Corporation should be allowed to bottle and sell water from the Columbia River Gorge.

In Canada, there was also recent backlash in British Columbia that Nestlé Corporation is paying too little to be allowed to bottle and sell water from the province.

Those who are resisting bottling water in their countries are doing so for many reasons, ranging from the environmental impact of recycling plastic to the damage to ecosystems from the extracting of water from underground aquifers.

At the same time, there is also a prevailing belief that bottled water is healthier and cleaner than tap water. There is a rise in types of bottled water; one can get flavoured water, sparkling water to mineral water.

However, in 2015, there have been recalls to bottled water. Some recent ones have been in the United States, the company Niagara Bottling recalled 14 of its brands due to E. coli bacteria from the water supply in these bottles.

From Bottling Water to Air

It seems absurd that water, a necessity to human life, is being sold for profit. However, it seems that an increase in selling necessities to life has been happening. China is now home to bottling air.

In 2012, due to China’s deteriorating air quality, a Chinese millionaire, Chen Guangbiao, started to bottle and sell clean air. The trend has seemed to continue in China.

Fifteen years have passed since the global incident of Bolivia and water privatization. Throughout fifteen years, the struggle and resistance from various populations around the world to keep water as a community controlled aspect of daily life seems to continue. However, with the trend of bottling air, one can wonder how many more necessities of life humankind is going to lose to capitalism.

About Sukhpal Kaur Sangha

Sukhpal is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto. Graduating with distinction, her Honours Bachelor of Arts degree focused on a double major in History and Political Science with a minor in Anthropology. She has spent much of her time devoted to volunteering in the community and the world around her. Her various passions resulted in her receiving the University of Toronto Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award. She currently volunteers on a Young Leaders Council in her community. Her passions include global history, Latin America, security, intelligence, international issues and development. She welcomes any questions or comments. Email: sukhpal.sangha25@gmail.com