Across Latin America, as one water-privatization project after another has failed, people from the largest urban centers to the smallest rural communities have continued courageously to assert their right to safe, affordable, and sufficient water--and to exercise direct democracy to ensure that right.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and InterAmerican Development Bank began to force privatization of essential public services as part of the neo-liberal policy of "structural adjustment." State funds to provide water, health care, education, energy, and transportation were redirected to expand business and the export sector and to increase trade and imports from the global North.
Lenders and corporate executives targeted these mostly poor and developing countries of Latin America. Population growth and urban migration were creating such huge, overcrowded cities--with their vast slums and sprawling suburbs--that cash-poor governments could no longer provide adequate drinking water and sanitation services for all. And, they argued, government officials were corrupt and lacked the technical expertise to run these systems.
Negotiations with local and national officials were conducted behind closed doors, often with 15 percent annual profits guaranteed to corporate executives. As Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch points out: "When contracts fail, as they inevitably do when private corporations are unwilling to provide the needed investment to maintain, build, and expand the water systems, [such] investor protections allow the companies to demand outrageous settlements from the countries they failed to serve." Argentina alone has 30 pending "investor-state" cases against it for termination of contracts with water corporations, many of which had only met 10 percent of the terms of their contracts! Finally, corporate CEOs assumed public officials would quell popular demonstrations for the right to water by people unable to afford market-rate pricing and high fees for water and sewage hook-ups.
Resistance Brings Results
The stories below show that despite these challenges, national leaders are responding when the people demand water justice and democracy.
Bolivia, one of the poorest Latin American countries, has emerged as a leader in the global "Right to Water" movement, with two major victories in five years culminating with the election in 2005 of Evo Morales, its first...