¡El Agua es Nuestra, Carajo!: Bolivia’s Struggles for Water Control in the Age of Climate Change

Seventeen years ago in April, residents of Bolivia’s Cochabamba region took to the streets under a simple slogan: ‘¡El agua es nuestra, carajo!’, or ‘The water is ours, Goddamn it!’ These words — spoken loudly by demographics as diverse as striking workers, nuns, academics, farmers, shop-workers, slum-dwellers, and policemen, against Hugo Banzer and his government’s attempts to privatise the region’s water — helped to construct a shared political identity among the Cochabamba residents which demanded a collective ownership of natural resources. Despite the national army’s violent attempts to repress these demands, the galvanising message then seemed clear enough. Today, however, that ownership is compromised, by drought, climate change, and the inconvenient reality of sustainability.

‘This is our water’ © Paula Wirth

Back in 2000, protests erupted when Banzer, behind closed doors, sold the Cochabamba department’s water to Aguas del Turani, a subsidiary of Bechtel, the US maintenance firm. Not long after, government officials arrived at people’s homes. They charged them for using water from the wells that they – the residents – had themselves dug and for drinking water from pipes that they had themselves built.

In this context, a claim to common ownership of water seemed natural. Stemming from indigenous practices and belief in the provision and distribution of the earth’s fruit to the people, farmers — and the ‘regantes’, or irrigators, watered their fields through an elaborate system passed down through the generations. As the Andean social scientist, Pablo Mamani Ramírez, writes, ‘water is a vital part of life: it is the blood of the Pachamama […] Mother earth, Pachamama, would die if it [water] became a commodity with market value.’ It was as much an astonishment at the cheek of the government’s willy-nilly privatisation that inspired Cochabamba’s violent political response. However, these communities know that, if Pachamama’s veins are dry, they themselves have no water to own.

Nearly two decades later, new pressures have arisen. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president — who came to power as a result of Cochabamba’s so-called ‘Water Wars’ and the subsequent demonstrations in 2003 and 2005 over gas privatisation — remains in charge. He has assigned control of different areas around the country to different local systems — systems which are largely not for profit, systems which are largely community-run. But the larger problem looms — a problem less locatable, more nebulous, and potentially more taciturn: climate change.

Earlier this year, Bolivia had been suffering from the worst drought in over a quarter of a century. Whilst a water crisis affected almost all of South America — with protests in Brazil; with forest fires in Peru; with three-day weeks in Venezuela — Bolivia’s Andean cities were particularly hard hit. A state of emergency has been declared, and emergency funds have been directed to local councils for digging etc. With a temperature rise of almost a degree in forty years, glaciers have melted — glaciers responsible for a third of La Paz and El Alto’s water supply — and the Lake Poópo has all but disappeared. The famous Lake Titicaca, upon which over two and a half million people depend for water, has reached its lowest level for over sixty years.

‘Lake Poopo has all but disappeared’ © David Mercado

From this perspective, Mamani Ramírez’s comments regarding Pachamama are prophetic — and it is not only him that has drawn connections between the commodification of natural resources and the deterioration of the environment. Morales himself famously expressed the sentiment, “capitalism or Pachamama!”, at the alternative climate conference he held in Cochabamba in 2010 — The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth — where he called for the “death of capitalism” in order to ensure the protection of the natural environment. Back in April, on the international Earth Day, Morales repeated this idea, referring to the “cancer of capitalism” and its effect on Pachamama.

However, Morales and his ruling party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS or, ‘Movement to Socialism’), has been criticised for their policies which ostensibly contradict his flowery rhetoric. Following the example of Venezuela, the MAS government strategy has been to harvest profits from nationalised natural resource exploitation and feed them back into social programmes and industries in order to generate employment and alleviate poverty. However, this exploitation — and its inevitable corollary in the further exploration for gas — has precisely contravened the very principles which brought Morales to power in the first place. Rather than the common ownership of nature’s resources, MAS’s pursuit of natural gas has been in alliance with multinational energy corporations including Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum, and Total. Whilst the government has made over thirty billion dollars from gas’s nationalisation, it has not done good on the promise to rid the country of foreign ‘capitalists’ and to bring Pachamama’s fruits under public control.

Nor, indeed, has it done anything to minimise the country’s contribution to the process — anthropogenic climate change — that is continuing to drive water scarcity across the region.

In a globalised world, in which the consequences of climate change cross national borders, the claim to common water ownership — ‘¡el agua es nuestra!’ — has, in itself, become less and less coherent. Yet, the sentiment it expresses — the strict non-profitability of that resource, its use by those who need it — remains intact and as laudable as ever. After his controversial disregard for last year’s referendum on the possibility of running for a fourth presidential term, Morales’s legacy may already be in tatters. But if his government is going to remain credible on social justice, a return to those ideas that were so galvanising during the ‘Water Wars’ seems necessary.