Five years after Bolivians drove water privateer Bechtel out of the city of Cochabamba, another water war is underway against multinational Suez. A widespread public protest has been underway in the city of El Alto since late last year, and its reaching the boiling point.
El Altos public water system was privatized in 1997 to Aguas del Illimani, a consortium jointly owned by Suez and a number of other shareholders, including an arm of the World Bank. Not coincidentally, it was World Bank policy that forced the privatization in the first place. The bank forced water privatization on the country by making it a condition of a much-needed loan to the country.
Since the privatization, water prices have risen by more than 35 per cent. A new hookup to the citys water and sewage system will set a family back more than six months of income at the national minimum wage far more than what many impoverished families earn in this sprawling community.
The water corporation is also being accused of denying some families any access to water services. Aguas del Illimani has failed to expand water services as the city grows, leaving water-poor outskirts. Lack of access to water is a major cause of sickness among children.
The situation sparked a city-wide general strike in January, forcing the government to cancel the companys water contract. However, residents didnt trust the deal, and they were right. In the weeks following the uprising, the government announced a new model of public private partnership that would leave Suez controlling 35 per cent of the consortium. So the uprising has continued. Community leaders have gone on a hunger strike and citizens have taken to the streets in thousands, demanding a public water company with democratic governance, social responsibility and citizen oversight.
Suez is threatening to sue the Bolivian government, in another replay of Bechtels ungraceful exit from the country (Bechtel recently announced it was willing to drop its case). For the latest on the Bolivian situation, visit www.democracyctr.org