Maude Barlow primes the clean-wa­ter pump

BLUE PLANET Ev­ery drop in bucket mat­ters to those fight­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion


ear­ing bright sneak­ers and a long beige over­coat, her hair sprin­kled with con­fetti, Cana­dian ac­tivist Maude Barlow is tour­ing one of Bo­livia’s poor­est com­mu­ni­ties.

At 4,300 me­tres al­ti­tude and flanked by rugged An­dean peaks, Villa Sol­i­dari­dad is home to 100 In­dian fam­i­lies.

Their clus­ter of adobe dwellings sits on the edge of El Alto, the sprawl­ing city above La Paz, Bo­livia’s cap­i­tal.

On Villa Sol­i­dari­dad’s north­ern side is a pri­vately owned treat­ment plant that sup­plies wa­ter to El Alto and La Paz. A pipe from the plant spews waste wa­ter onto the vil­lagers’ side of a chain-link fence.

Un­til re­cently, the peo­ple of Villa Sol­i­dari­dad did their laun­dry with this wa­ter and some chil­dren be­came deathly sick drink­ing it. The vil­lagers had lit­tle choice, be­ing among the 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple in the world with­out ac­cess to clean wa­ter. “When we bathed in the wa­ter, it burned our skin,” says Car­los Or­tiz Silva, the com­mu­nity’s elected leader.

Aguas de Il­li­mani, a sub­sidiary of the French multi­na­tional Suez, has run the plant since 1997, when Bo­livia pri­va­tized the wa­ter util­ity shared by El Alto and La Paz. That left a lot of peo­ple high and dry, un­able to af­ford the high con­nec­tion fees.

Barlow, chair of the Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project wa­t­er­ad­vo­cacy group, first vis­ited Villa Sol­i­dari­dad in 2004. She was so ap­palled by its poverty that when she was named a win­ner of the 2005 Right Liveli­hood

WAward, she de­cided to de­vote a chunk of the prize money with the peo­ple she’d met there. Her $5,000 (U.S.) do­na­tion al­lowed Villa Sol­i­dari­dad to pur­chase tanks and pipes and in­stall pub­lic faucets to serve the com­mu­nity with potable wa­ter from the mu­nic­i­pal sys­tem.

“It’s a great hon­our to help in this lit­tle way,” she said through an in­ter­preter to beam­ing res­i­dents. “But I also want to tell you that we’re build­ing a world move­ment so that ev­ery­one can have ac­cess to wa­ter, be­cause it’s a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right. And the fight you’re putting on here is one of the most im­por­tant fights.”

(She would later say she made the do­na­tion pub­lic only be­cause Suez placed an ad in a lo­cal news­pa­per tak­ing credit for in­fra­struc­ture she paid for. She says she will sue Suez if her Bo­li­vian friends think it will help their cause.)

In El Alto, 200,000 res­i­dents still don’t have ac­cess to clean wa­ter, the main rea­son the city rose up against Suez in 2004 in Bo­livia’s sec­ond suc­cess­ful wa­ter war. Af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions with the na­tional gov­ern­ment and con­tin­ued pres­sure from El Alto ac­tivists, Suez will leave Bo­livia at the end of this year.

Barlow be­lieves its exit is part of a dra­matic shift in the global strug­gle for con­trol of the world’s scarce drink­ing wa­ter — a con­test pit­ting multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions against those who want wa­ter rec­og­nized as a hu­man right and kept un­der strict pub­lic con­trol.

There is a grow­ing agree­ment that the ca­pac­ity of pri­va­ti­za­tion to gen­er­ate in­vest­ment — once con­sid­ered the magic so­lu­tion to the world’s wa­ter woes — has turned out to be a dan­ger­ous il­lu­sion.

In March, a Bri­tish study called Pipe Dreams found that the private sec­tor has done an abysmal job of con­nect­ing poor peo­ple to wa­ter.

Mean­while, anti-pri­va­ti­za­tion move­ments have posted an in­creas­ing num­ber of vic­to­ries.

Coun­try by coun­try, Suez is aban­don­ing South Amer­ica. An­other multi­na­tional, RWE Thames, is di­vest­ing it­self of all its wa­ter op­er­a­tions out­side con­ti­nen­tal Europe.

At the Fourth World Wa­ter Fo­rum in Mex­ico City last March, even the most en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of pri­va­ti­za­tion — the World Bank and the multi­na­tional wa­ter com­pa­nies — spoke about pri­va­ti­za­tion’s fail­ures.

“We have a re­ally strong global so­cial move­ment, and we need to step in with our own al­ter­na­tive,” says Barlow. “We want to get wa­ter es­tab­lished as a hu­man right in a United Na­tions’ con­ven­tion, one that also de­mands that wa­ter be de­liv­ered as a pub­lic ser­vice.”

This is how to make sure that com­mu­ni­ties like Villa Sol­i­dari­dad don’t have to de­pend on the luck of the draw, she con­tends.

“It should be their right, no­body should have to grovel for wa­ter. No­body should be told you can’t have it be­cause you can’t pay for it.”

She ar­gues that for the half the money the World Bank has sunk into failed pri­va­ti­za­tion schemes it could fund a trans­fer of best prac­tices within the pub­lic sec­tor. (Pub­lic sys­tems man­age the vast ma­jor­ity of the world’s ba­sic wa­ter ser­vices.)

Barlow has long worked with Os­car Oliv­era, the most vis­i­ble leader in the Bo­li­vian wa­ter wars.

To­gether, they or­ga­nized a meet­ing with Bo­livia’s min­is­ter of wa­ter, Abel Ma­mani, and Nor­way’s visit­ing min­is­ter of de­vel­op­ment co-op­er­a­tion, Erik Sol­heim.

(Af­ter left­ist Evo Mo­rales was elected as his coun­try’s first-ever in­dige­nous pres­i­dent last De­cem­ber, he cre­ated the con­ti­nent’s first wa­ter min­istry.)

The topic was Barlow and Oliv­era’s pro­posal to have so­cial move­ments and a hand­ful of north­ern and south­ern coun­tries write a strong, prin­ci­pled con­ven­tion that they would be taken to the UN.

Cur­rently, the only in­ter­na­tional le­gal frame­work deal­ing with wa­ter is a se­ries of trade agree­ments; the right to wa­ter is not in­cluded in the UN’s Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

Ma­mani, who ear­lier led El Alto’s fight against Suez and who has since been cam­paign­ing for the recog­ni­tion of wa­ter as a hu­man right, jumped aboard im­me­di­ately.

Sol­heim’s gov­ern­ment has al­ready de­clared the world wa­ter cri­sis a top pri­or­ity and has said it will stop fund­ing projects in­volv­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion.

“There are two op­tions,” Barlow con­cludes. “Ei­ther we have a com­pe­ti­tion for scarce re­sources — rich ver­sus poor, pub­lic ver­sus private, hu­mans ver­sus na­ture — or we come to­gether as a hu­man species and al­low wa­ter to teach us all how to bet­ter to live with one an­other.”


Maude Barlow, chair of the Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project wa­ter-ad­vo­cacy group, vis­its Villa Sol­i­dari­dad, where her do­na­tion helped bring potable wa­ter to res­i­dents.

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