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.”