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On Water Scarcity and the Right to Life: Bolivia by Emma Strother

In business, community, ethics, human rights, society, South America on September 24, 2013 at 00:39

From: On Water Scarcity and the Right to Life: Bolivia by Emma Strother, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, http://www.coha.org

Water is arguably the substance most important to maintaining life on earth. At the mountainous center of South America, Bolivia’s complex struggles with the scarcity and commodification of water captured worldwide attention at the turn of the twenty-first century. Symbolizing the denial of a basic human right, privatization of water provoked mass mobilization and dramatic social reform throughout the country. Today, Bolivia’s lingering water scarcity reveals instability in the wake of the ‘Water Wars,’ and the ongoing challenge of resource allocation that the Morales Administration currently faces.

Rising water prices precipitated the conflict by denying basic human rights protection to vulnerable communities. In 1997, the World Bank refused to renew $600 million USD of debt relief to Bolivia unless the country agreed to privatize water. World Bank decision-makers reasoned that putting water in the private sector would help to broadly stimulate the Bolivian economy. [1] Shortly thereafter, officials in the city of Cochabamba sold its municipal water company SEMAPA to the transnational consortium Aguas del Tunari, controlled by U.S. company Bechtel. Bechtel increased water rates for SEMAPA customers to $20 USD monthly, a 35 to 50 percent increase. The new rates were exorbitant to many Cochabambans, who made an average of only $100 per month. [2] Tensions rose even higher when a local law extended Bechtel’s control of water resources to the city’s southern expansion and surrounding rural communities, regions outside of SEMAPA jurisdiction.

A diverse group of civilian protestors coordinated their response to these unjust policies in a historic movement that framed water privatization as a violation of basic human rights. Citizens of Cochabamba and surrounding communities formed an “alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middleclass professionals in opposition to water privatization.” [3] Early leaders of the movement included activist and writer Oscar Olivera who earned the 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize for his role in the protests. [4] Evo Morales, then an organizer of rural workers in Chapare, traveled to Cochabamba with a coalition of activists to support civic strikes, roadblocks, and vast popular assemblies. These protests expanded to include issues of unemployment and the economy, causing President Hugo Banzer to declare a “state of emergency” on April 8, 2000. [5] At the height of civil unrest, a citywide strike disrupted transportation, news media, and industry for four days. The Bolivian government offered La Paz police officers a 50 percent pay raise to encourage speedy and aggressive crackdowns on the demonstrations. Throughout the protest period, 110 protestors and 51 policemen were injured, and 200 demonstrators were arrested. Nine violent deaths were attributed to the social unrest. [6] The privatization of water in Bolivia incited these protests by making access to water, and therefore to life, conditional on wealth in a district overwhelmingly known for its poverty.

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Reposted with permission from: COHA

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