Last spring, outraged Bolivians drove water privateer Bechtel out of the country, opposing water rate hikes that priced this life source out of many citizens reach.
The Cochabamba protests began soon after the Aguas del Tunari consortium signed a 40-year concession to provide water and sewer services for the city, and to supply water for irrigation and electrical generation to the Cochabamba valley. The single-bidder sale of Cochabambas public system was pushed on government officials by the World Bank.
The consortium is led by Bechtel Enterprises affiliate International Water Limited (IWL). IWL is jointly owned by San Francisco-based Bechtel and the Italian utility Edison.
When IWL assumed control of the water systems in January 2000, it imposed massive increases for water and sewer services. Activists organized a city shutdown, forcing an agreement to reverse the increases. That agreement was not honoured. Tensions continued to grow through February and peaked at the end of March.
At the end of a week of protests, blockades and tense negotiations with the government, reports emerged that IWL was fleeing the country. When the consortium tried to backtrack, the government, feeling the heat from a pot about to boil over, announced that IWL had broken its contract by attempting to leave, and was no longer welcome.
However, IWL had done its homework, and had reincorporated as a Dutch company as it was taking over the citys water. Now, the corporation is trying to sue the Bolivian government under a 1992 Holland-Bolivia trade agreement. According to newspaper reports, the company is seeking as much as US$40 million in damages and lost future profits.
Meanwhile, local residents have control of their water system, and are drawing on international support to rebuild a strong, viable system that serves the community well.