2000 – Water war Cochabamba

In April 2000, a small Bolivian city forced out a US corporation that had privatized their water system, setting in train a series of revolts that would not only bring the first indigenous president to power but also mark a turning point worldwide against privatization.

In 2000, as part of an IMF-imposed policy, Bolivia handed over the water system of Bolivia’s third largest city to a consortium led by Bechtel, a Californian corporation. The consortium, Aguas de Tunari, increased water prices dramatically, prompting a popular revolt that brought together rural water committees and urban consumers into a coalition called the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Life (La Coordinadora).

A popular strike and demonstrations was responded to with repression by the government that left one 17-year-old boy dead and more than a hundred people wounded.  This merely increased popular protest with demonstrations spreading quickly to other Bolivian cities including La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí as well as rural areas.  In April 2000, the government finally capitulated and ended the contract.

Bechtel and Spanish investor Abengoa took revenge, filing a $50 million legal demand against Bolivia before a closed-door trade court operated by the World Bank, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). For four years afterwards Bechtel and Abengoa found their companies and corporate leaders dogged by protest, damaging press, and public demands from five continents that they drop the case. In 2006, they finally agreed to abandon the ICSID case for a token payment of 2 bolivianos (30 cents).

Cochabamba’s reversal of privatization inspired a series of popular revolts in Bolivia against unpopular neoliberal economic policies. In 2003, residents of El Alto rose up against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada because of his plans to sell Bolivian gas to the US via Chile, In 2005, there were further strikes and blockades demanding an end to the contract with Suez-owned Aguas del Illimani and calling for nationalisation of gas. The upswell of anger against privatisation helped bring Evo Morales to power in elections in 2006 with a platform to end privatisation of Bolivia's natural resources.

The Water War also marked the beginning of a wave of cities resisting privatization worldwide. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 235 communities in 37 countries had reversed water privatization with the number of cases each year accelerating after 2010 as citizens found the promises of privatization failed to deliver either cheaper or better services.

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10 year anniversary of Cochabamba's successful fight against water privatization by the Bechtel Corporation. Photo by Peg Hunter