Clean and affordable water is a basic human right, but right now, citizens in El Alto, Bolivia are struggling to regain control of their local water supply from multinational corporate giant, Suez.
As a condition for a World Bank loan, the public water system in El Alto was privatized in 1997. Eight years later, despite promises of expanded water services, the private company Aguas del Illimani (Suez is the major shareholder) had failed to deliver water to 200,000 people in El Alto and had no plans to do so in the future. In addition, the water company required connection fees of $445 US when the minimum wage in Bolivia is $60 US per month. In January 2005, after a general strike and public protests demanding the immediate withdrawal of Suez from Bolivia and for the government to investigate the company’s actions, the Bolivian government decided to cancel its contract with Aguas del Illimani.
Despite this initial victory, the Bolivian government, under pressure from the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and German Corporation GTZ, announced its intention to create a supposed “New Model” of Public-Private Partnership where Suez would continue to hold 35% of the shares.
Citizens have rejected this latest proposal and are instead calling for the establishment of a community-run public water company for El Alto and the neighbouring community of La Paz (also controlled by Suez), managed by an elected board of citizens that treats water as a common good, not a commodity.
In late April 2005, I was asked to join the peoples’ movements in El Alto, Bolivia that have been working to re-establish public control over their water system. In an area of the world where so many people have so little, it is inspiring to see how citizens have organized to defend their rights. I was asked to speak to a huge rally of citizens in El Alto who are asserting their right to water. I also participated in an action with members of the Coordinadora (Coordinator for the Defense of Water and Life) from Cochabamba, Bolivia (which just a few years ago fought its own battle for local control of its water supply), FEJUEVE (the Federation of Neighbourhood Committees) and the Coordinadora from Uruguay, where we presented Suez Corporation with a symbolic one-way plane ticket to France, demanding the company pack its bags and leave Bolivia.
Struggles like this for the right to water are continuing every day, and in every country, North and South. It is humbling to be part of such local struggles and an international movement that is growing stronger with each passing day.
Maude Barlow is the national chairperson of The Council of Canadians and founder of The Blue Planet Project