Water Warriors

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The Nation.
April 14, 2008
as Democrats, with the implication that their political choices
insist that this does not matter, because they think about those
are shaped by economic self-interest or traditional party loyalty
advantages differently. When asked to define just what is so
rather than by any deep commitment to liberal ideals. It’s as if
awful about the way liberals think, they fall back on a series
you can’t count as a liberal unless you can afford the lifestyle.
of unproven—and ultimately unprovable—accusations of the
Liberalism is treated less as a political credo than as the out-
kind made by totalitarian regimes against their dissidents.
ward expression of a particular social identity, like a predilec-
Somehow they’ve managed to persuade the so-called liberal
tion for granite countertops and bottled water.”
media to repeat these same accusations, despite the rather
It’s quite a trick these right-wingers have pulled off, one
inconvenient fact that they make no sense. In the meantime,
that might even impress George Orwell. When they dislike a
they’ve managed to discredit virtually all of the people to
position, they deride it as “elitist,” irrespective of the fact that
whom they can successfully attach their wholly meaningless
it is supported by a majority of Americans. Personally, they
tag. It may not make much sense, but as the folks at American
enjoy exactly the same advantages as liberal elitists, but they
Express have taught us, success is its own reward.
Water Warriors
Declaring water a right, not a commodity, a
global water justice movement is growing.
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

—W.H. Auden, First Things First
A fierce resistance to the corporate takeover of water has
grown in every corner of the globe, giving rise to a
coordinated and, given the powers it is up against, sur-
prisingly successful water justice movement. “Water for
all” is the rallying cry of local groups fighting for access
to clean water and the life, health and dignity that it brings.
Many of these groups have lived through years of abuse, poverty
and hunger. Many have been left without public education and
health programs when their governments were forced to aban-


don them under World Bank structural adjustment policies. But
somehow, the assault on water has been the great standpoint for
millions. Without water there is no life, and for thousands of
Latin America was the site of the first experiments with
communities around the world, the struggle over the right to
water privatization in the developing world. The failure of
their own local water sources has been politically galvanizing.
these projects has been a major factor in the rejection of the
A mighty contest has grown between those (usually power-
neoliberal market model by so many Latin American countries
ful) forces and institutions that see water as a commodity, to be
that have said no to the extension of the North American Free
put on the open market and sold to the highest bidder, and
Trade Agreement to the Southern Hemisphere and that have
those who see water as a public trust, a common heritage of
forced the big water companies to retreat. A number of Latin
people and nature, and a fundamental human right. The ori-
American countries are also opting out of some of the most
gins of this movement, generally referred to as the global water
egregious global institutions. This past May Bolivia, Venezuela
justice movement, lie in the hundreds of communities around
and Nicaragua announced their decision to withdraw from the
the world where people are fighting to protect their local water
World Bank’s arbitration court, the International Centre for
supplies from pollution, destruction by dams and theft—be it
the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), in no small
from other countries, their own governments or private corpo-
measure because of the way the big water corporations have
rations such as bottled water companies and private utilities
used the center to sue for compensation when the countries
backed by the World Bank. Until the late 1990s, however, most
terminated private delivery contracts.
were operating in isolation, unaware of other struggles or the
Latin America, with its water abundance, should have one
global nature of the water crisis.
of the highest per capita allocations of water in the world.
Instead, it has one of the lowest. There are three reasons, all
Maude Barlow is the author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water
connected: polluted surface waters, deep class inequities and
Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (New Press),
water privatization. In many parts of Latin America, only the
from which this article was adapted. Reprinted with the permission of the
rich can buy clean water. So it is not surprising that some of
publisher. Copyright © 2007 by Maude Barlow.
the most intense fights against corporate control of water

The Nation.
April 14, 2008
have come out of this region of the world.
hookups, about $450, equivalent to the food budget of a poor
The first “water war” gained international attention when
family for two years; and it did not invest in infrastructure repair
the indigenous peoples of Cochabamba, Bolivia, led by a
or wastewater treatment, choosing instead to build a series of
five-foot, slightly built, unassuming shoemaker named Oscar
ditches and canals through poor areas of La Paz, which it used to
Olivera, rose up against the privatization of their water services.
send garbage, raw sewage and even the effluent from the city’s
In 1999, under World Bank supervision, the Bolivian govern-
abattoirs into Lake Titicaca, considered by UNESCO a World
ment had passed a law privatizing Cochabamba’s water system
Heritage site. To add insult to injury, the company lo cated its
and gave the contract to US engineering giant Bechtel, which
fortresslike plant under the beautiful Mount Illimani, where it
immediately tripled the price of water. In a country where the
captured the snowmelt off the mountain and, after rudimentary
minimum wage is less than $60 a month, many users received
treatment, piped it into the homes of families and businesses in
water bills of $20 a month, which they simply could not afford.
La Paz that could pay. The nearest community, Solidaridad, a
As a result, La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida
slum of about 100 families with no electricity, heat or running
(Coalition in Defense of Water and Life), one of the first coali-
water, had its only water supply cut off. Its school and health
tions against water privatization in the world, was formed and
clinic, built with foreign-aid money, could not operate because
organized a successful referendum demanding the government
of a lack of water. It was the same all through El Alto.
cancel its contract with Bechtel. When the government refused
An intense resistance to Suez formed. FEJUVE, a network
to listen, many thousands took to the streets in nonviolent
of local community councils and activists, led a series of strikes
protest and were met with army violence that wounded dozens
in January 2005, which crippled the cities and brought busi-
and killed a 17-year-old boy. On April 10, 2000, the Bolivian
ness to a halt. This resistance was a prime factor in the ousting
government relented and told Bechtel to leave the country.
of presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa.
The Bolivian government had also bowed to pressure from
Their replacement, Evo Morales, the first indigenous presi-
the World Bank to privatize the water of La Paz and in 1997
dent in the country’s history, negotiated Suez’s departure. On
gave Suez, a French-based multinational, a thirty-year contract
January 3, 2007, he held a ceremony at the presidential palace
to supply water services to it and El Alto, the hilly region sur-
celebrating the return of the water of La Paz and El Alto after
rounding the capital, where thousands of indigenous peoples
a long and bitter confrontation. “Water cannot be turned over
live. From the beginning, there were problems. Aguas del Illi-
to private business,” said Morales. “It must remain a basic serv-
mani, a Suez subsidiary, broke three key promises: it did not
ice, with participation of the state, so that water service can be
deliver to all the residents, poor as well as rich, leaving about
provided almost for free.”
200,000 without water; it charged exorbitant rates for water
Although they have received less international attention,
similar battles over privatized water have raged in Argentina.
Río de la Plata (Silver River) separates Buenos Aires, the Argen-
The Nation, Cave Canem Foundation and The New School
tine capital, from Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. For 500
are proud to sponsor an evening with
years, it has also been called Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea) because its
size made people think it was a freshwater sea. Today, however,
the river is famous for something else: it is one of the few rivers
in the world whose pollution can be seen from space. On
March 21, 2006, the Argentine government rescinded the
thirty-year contract of Aguas Argentinas, the Suez subsidiary
that had run the Buenos Aires water system since 1993, in no
small part because the company broke its promise to treat
wastewater, continuing to dump nearly 90 percent of the city’s
sewage into the river. In another broken promise, the company
repeatedly raised tariffs, for a total increase of 88 percent in the
first ten years of operation. Water quality was another issue;
water in seven districts had nitrate levels so high it was unfit
© C
for human consumption. An April 2007 report by the city’s
ombuds man stated that most of the population of 150,000 in
the southern district of the city lived with open-air sewers and
Come to a reading and book signing
contaminated drinking water.
celebrating the release of Eady’s new and selected poems,
Yet as Food and Water Watch reports, the Inter-American
Development Bank continued to fund Suez as late as 1999,
despite the mounting evidence that the company was pulling in
20 percent profit margins while refusing to invest in services or
Wednesday, April 23 • 6:30 PM
infrastructure. Outrageously, with the backing of the French
The New School • Wollman Hall
government, Suez is trying to recoup $1.7 billion in “invest-
65 West 11th Street, 5th Floor • New York, New York
ments” and up to $33 million in unpaid water bills at the ICSID.

Suez had just (in December 2005) been forced out of the prov-
For more information visit www.cavecanem.com
ince of Santa Fe, where it had a thirty-year contract to run the
water systems of thirteen cities. The company is also suing the

April 14, 2008
The Nation.
provincial government at the ICSID for $180 million. Close on
the heels of the Buenos Aires announcement, Suez was forced
to abandon its last stronghold in Argentina, the city of Córdoba,
when water rates were raised 500 percent on one bill.
In all cases, strong civil society resistance was key to these
re treats. A coalition of water users and residents of Santa Fe,
led by Alberto Múñoz and others, actual y organized a huge and
successful plebiscite, in which 256,000 people, about a twelfth of
the population of the province, voted to rescind Suez’s contract.
They convened a Provincial Assembly on the Right to Water
with 7,000 activists and citizens in November 2002, which set the
stage for the political opposition to the company. The People’s
Commission for the Recovery of Water in Córdoba is a highly
organized network of trade unions, neighborhood centers, social
organizations and politicians with a clear goal of public water for
al , and was instrumental in getting the government to break its
contract with Suez. “What we want is a public company man-
aged by workers, consumers and the provincial government, and
monitored by university experts to guarantee water quality and
prevent corruption,” says Luis Bazán, the group’s leader and a
water worker who refused employment with Suez.
Mexico is a beachhead for privatization across the re -
gion, with its elites having access to all the water
they need and also controlling governments at most
levels of the country. Only 9 percent of the country’s
surface water is fit for drinking, and its aquifers are
being drawn down mercilessly. According to the National Com-
mission on Water, 12 mil ion Mexicans have no access to po table
water whatsoever and another 25 million live in villages and cit-
ies where the taps run as little as a few hours a week. Eighty-two
percent of wastewater goes untreated. Mexico City has dried
up, and its 22 million inhabitants live on the verge of crisis.
Services are so poor in the slums and outskirts of the city that
cockroaches run out when the tap is turned on. In many “colo-
nias” in Mexico City and around the country, the only available
water is sold from trucks that bring it in once a week, often by
political parties that sell the water for votes.
In 1983 the federal government handed over responsibility
for the water supply to the municipalities. Then in 1992 it
passed a new national water bill that encouraged the munici-
palities to privatize water in order to receive funding. Privati-
zation was supported by former President Vicente Fox, himself
a former senior executive with Coca-Cola, and is also favored
by the current president, Felipe Calderón. The World Bank
and the Inter-American Development Bank are actively pro-
moting water privatization in Mexico. In 2002 the World Bank
provided $250 million for infrastructure repair with conditions
that municipalities negotiate public-private partnerships. Suez
is deeply entrenched in Mexico, running the water services for
part of Mexico City, Cancún and about a dozen other cities. Its
wastewater division, Degremont, has a large contract for San
Luis Potosí and several other cities as well. The privatization of
water has become a top priority for the Mexican water commis-
sion, Conagua. As in other countries, privatization in Mexico
has brought exorbitant water rates, broken promises and cut-
offs to those who cannot pay. The Water Users Association in
Saltillo, where a consortium of Suez and the Spanish company
Aguas de Barcelona run the city’s water systems, reports that a

The Nation.
April 14, 2008
2004 audit by the state comptroller found evidence of contrac-
against the privatization of the country’s wastewater infra-
tual and state law violations.
structure; and Brazil, where strong public opinion has held
A vibrant civil society movement has recently come to -
back the forces of water privatization in most cities. Un -
gether to fight for the right to clean water and resist the trend
fortunately, resistance in Peru, where increased rates, cor-
to corporate control in Mexico. In April 2005 the Mexican
ruption and debt plague the system, has not yet reversed
Center for Social Analysis, Information and Training (CASIFOP)
water privatization. Likewise, in Chile, resistance to water
brought together more than 400 activists, indigenous peoples,
privatization is very difficult because of the entrenched com-
small farmers and students to launch a coordinated grassroots
mitment to market ideology of the ruling elites, although
resistance to water privatization. The Coalition of Mexican
there is hope that the center-left government of Michelle
Organizations for the Right to Water (COMDA) is a large
Bachelet will be more open to arguments for public gover-
col lec tion of environmental, human rights, indigenous and
nance of Chile’s water supplies.
cultural groups devoted not only to activism but also to
From thousands of local struggles for the basic right to
community- based education on water, its place in Mexico’s
water—not just throughout Latin America but in Asia-Pacific
history and the need for legislation to protect the public’s right
countries, Africa and the United States and Canada—a high-
to access. Their hopes for a government supportive of their
ly organized international water justice movement has been
perspective were dashed when conservative candidate Cal derón
forged and is shaping the future of the world’s water. This
won (many say stole) the 2006 presidential election over pro-
movement has already had a profound effect on global water
gressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Calderón
politics, forcing global institutions such as the World Bank
is working openly with the private water companies to cement
and the United Nations to admit the failure of their model,
private control of the country’s water supplies.
and it has helped formulate water policy inside dozens of
countries. The movement has forced open a debate over the
ther Latin American cities or countries rejecting water
control of water and challenged the “Lords of Water” who
privatization include Bogotá, Colombia (although
had set themselves up as the arbiters of this dwindling
other Colombian cities, including Cartagena, have
resource. The growth of a democratic global water justice
adopted private water systems); Paraguay, whose lower
movement is a critical and positive development that will
house rejected a Senate proposal to privatize water in
bring needed accountability, transparency and public over-
July 2005; Nicaragua, where a fierce struggle has been waged
sight to the water crisis as conflicts over water loom on the
by civil society groups and where in January 2007 a court ruled
(continued from page 2)
dislikes my politics; I just hope readers see of which is that all faiths are fundamen-
The Religion Wars
his own crude, error-filled version of the tally intolerant because all believe they
history of toleration for what it is, an ideo-
represent the one true path. The more
logical construct.
fervently they believe this, the more
Daniel Lazare’s review of my book Di-
There is just one point on which I’d like aghast they inevitably wind up being at
vided by Faith [“Good Faith,” March 17] to set the record straight. I do not suggest others’ erroneous ways. And the more
does it the compliment of recounting in my book that some religions are bet- aghast they are, the more likely they are
many of the fascinating phenomena my ter than others, I do not celebrate pietism to respond with violence when someone
book describes: ways in which people of and I do not suggest a policy of promoting says something particularly hateful, e.g.,
different faiths managed sometimes to peacefully inclined religions and repressing
live alongside one another peacefully in
that Jesus never rose from the dead, that
an era notorious for religious conflict.
others. I do believe that religion is never Muhammad was just another warlord or
In the end, though, he concludes that going to disappear and that if ways cannot that Yahweh never promised Abraham
my book must be “bad history.” Why? La-
be found for people of faith to live together control of all territory from the Nile to
zare is fundamentally hostile to religion, peacefully, toleration may be in short sup-
the Euphrates. If these were minor de-
and in his review he takes sides with Rich-
ply. If that belief makes me a “hard-core tails, it wouldn’t matter. But for the truly
ard Dawkins and others who see all religion softie,” as Lazare calls me, I accept the label faithful, they are of world-shaking impor-
as, at best, false and dangerous. Elsewhere proudly.
tance, which is why disagreement is not
he has claimed that inevitably “even the Benjamin J. Kaplan
something they can pass over lightly.
gentlest religion winds up being violent
But, hey, it’s not only religion that is
and tyrannical.” So it is no wonder that he Lazare Replies
intolerant. Science is intolerant of super-
dismisses all the concrete examples I offer
stition, democracy is intolerant of dictator-
of toleration being practiced by people who New York City
ship and socialism is intolerant of capital-
had not been touched by secularization. It It is Benjamin Kaplan who uses the un-
ism. Even tolerance is intolerant, as the
is the latter that Lazare credits for the rise fortunate phrase “bona fide religion” Dutch are discovering.
of real toleration. In short, Lazare doesn’t in distinguishing between “good faith”
What matters, rather, is not tolerance
like my politics, or what he thinks are my sects, which are tolerant of others, and but truth, a matter that, when it comes to
politics, and he concludes that my history those that are not. This is illogical on any religion, Kaplan wisely avoids.
must therefore be bad. I don’t care if he number of grounds, the most important Daniel Lazare