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Bolivian Protesters end Water Privatization in La Paz, El Alto

In El Alto, Bolivia, Aymara and others who count among Latin America's most destitute have told the Bolivian government that a price should not be placed on clean water.

On Friday the Federation of El Alto Neighborhoods, locally known as the Fejuve, accepted Supreme Decree 27973 terminating the Bolivian government's contract with the private water company Aguas del Illimani, and declared a pause to the public protests that started on January 10.

"This defeat of Aguas del Illimani is a triumph for the inhabitants of the city of El Alto," said Fejuve Executive Abel Mamani, according to La Opinion. "After many years of Aguas del Illimani sucking the blood out of the Alteño population, finally, we are kicking Aguas del Illimani out."

The Supreme Decree, ordered by the Superintendent of Basic Sanitation, guaranteed service that will supply drinkable water and a sewage system for the cities of La Paz and El Alto, reported La Opinion.

Last week, Alteños were at an impasse with the Bolivian government and Aguas del Illimani, the Bolivian subsidiary of the French water baron, Suez. Located 14,000 feet above sea level and 10 miles north of La Paz, El Alto came to a standstill as rural peasants and urban vendors congregated to demand their rights to clean water at a decent price.

Yolanda Saliz, an Aymara woman and second-year client of Pro Mujer, an international microfinance organization, affirmed that the right to water is a human right, "because there is no life without water."

In 1997, the World Bank declared that it would stop providing Bolivia with international development grants unless the government of Bolivia privatized the water supply of La Paz and El Alto. Consequently, Alteños have found themselves fiscally constrained by the new contract that controls their water distribution.

Aguas del Illimani has raised the cost of connecting water and sewage systems to homes in El Alto to more than US$445 per year, a 35 percent increase since it took over. Most Alteños make an average of $750 per year.

Gilda Reyes, a new client of Pro Mujer, expressed frustration that her monthly water payment of 44 Bolivianos (roughly US$5.50) is higher than it ought to be, "since we are only using it for basic nourishment and to wash our clothes."

The water protests strategically commenced on the five-year anniversary of Cochabamba's public uprising against another water baron, the Betchel Corporation of San Francisco. Following World Bank advice, the Bolivian government gave Betchel control of water utilities on which over half a million people subsisted. The revolt in Cochabamba ended in multiple deaths, injuries, and the filing by Betchel of a $25 million legal action against Bolivia that, according to The Democracy Center, was later dropped because of intense international pressure.

In order to avoid a repeat of the Cochabamba events in El Alto, current Bolivian President Carlos Mesa and his government indicated in Los Tiempos on Wednesday that they would end the contract with Aguas del Illimani.

After suffering years of political deception the president's word did not satisfy Alteños. Fejuve, along with Trabajadores Central Obrera Regional de El Alto (Central Regional Workers of El Alto), unionists, and Aymara from rural and urban areas continued their blockades, strikes, and protests until Mesa promulgated Supreme Decree 27973 with a defined date that guaranteed the termination of the contract with Aguas del Illimani set forth by Bolivian law.