COCHABAMBA, Bolivia–Five years ago the issue of water privatization exploded here when massive public protests forced out a consortium of firms led by the California engineering giant, Bechtel. Within weeks of taking over the city’s public water company, Bechtel hiked up rates by as much as 200 percent, far beyond what the city’s poor could afford to pay.
Now, a new Bolivian water revolt is under way 200 miles north in the city of El Alto, a growing urban sprawl that sits 14,000 feet above sea level and is populated by waves of impoverished families arriving from the economically desperate countryside.
As in Cochabamba, the public water system of El Alto and its neighbor La Paz, the nation’s capital, was privatized in 1997 when the World Bank made water privatization a condition of a loan to the Bolivian government. The private consortium that took control of the water, Aguas del Illimani, is owned jointly by the French water giant, Suez, and a set of minority shareholders that includes an arm of the World Bank.
Community groups in El Alto charge that by pegging rates to the dollar, the company has raised water prices by 35 percent since it took over. The cost for new families to hook up their homes to water and sewage totals more than $445, an amount that exceeds more than six months of income at the national minimum wage.
Water privatization is an ugly thing, taking what should be a right, access to clean, inexpensive water, jacking up the price, then sending the profits out of the country. A few greedy pigs on top get wealthier, the citizens get screwed. Let’s hope for a repeat of Cochabamba, where the populace revolted and eventually took over the water company, made it public again, and dropped the price of water.
Note this was the same water delivered through the same system. Under privatization, the price of water soared. When it went back to being public, the price dropped. Privatization benefits no one except an elite few.