Monopolising Necessities: Bolivia and Water

The contemporary proliferation of neo-liberal policies on a global scale has accentuated issues of unequal access to our fundamental human necessities. Although there should be no hierarchical structure to basic human needs; the modern economic system has transformed such needs into saleable goods. Dan Stead argues that, through the case of clean water production and distribution, we can observe how a historically freely flowing resource has been harnessed as a commodity. 

In many developing nations, the collection of water is a personal task performed at individual household level. The global economic system however has led to the expansion of capitalist economic practice across international boundaries. As we can observe in an abundance of cases, this has led to increased privatisation of available resources resulting in the monopolisation of water access at the hands of a few transnational corporations.

Pressures on governments, particularly in the global south, to deregulate water resources and succumb to the orthodoxy of neoliberalism, severely hinders the ability of those living in poverty to gain access to fresh water. The case of Bolivia represents just one example of a decentralising nation-state opening up its markets to privatisation by attracting direct foreign investment, facilitated by low taxation. World Bank loans frequently set the conditions for the expansion of neoliberal economic policy within developing nations, citing inferior governments plagued by localised corruption as the reason for decentralised investment and skilled management. This in the case of Bolivia however, ensured a basic human right became a marketed product.

©USAID/Creative Commons License

©USAID/Creative Commons License

The San Francisco based multi-national, Bechtel, alongside Aguas del Tunari were able to monopolise water supplies and increase prices in to fund the construction of a reservoir reserve system. Privatisation cut off many homes, accentuating gulfs in social class within Bolivia and creating further problems of poor health and sanitation.

Ultimately, this move sparked conflicts such as the Cochabamba riots in 2000. Eventually the violence led to the removal of the Tunari Water Corporation contract which had doubled the price of water since taking resource control in Bolivian cities. Human agency prevailed as people refused to be priced out of their basic rights, yet the case brought into focus the shocking scale of profit over needs with increasing resource privatisation.

Although fresh water is ultimately a finite resource and safe-supply needs financing, access to clean drinking water is still as low as 71% in rural Bolivia. International pressures on the government to adhere to free market policies allowed no room for negotiation of a set water mains connection fee, isolating many poorer rural communities.

In contrast, the marketing of water within so called developed nations can be determined an entrepreneurial master stroke. In the UK we purchase bottled water as a convenience good despite the fact that tap water is readily available at homes and public buildings. With global sales currently at around $60bn per annum, the industry has grown exponentially in recent decades. Marketing campaigns aim to inform consumers of bottled mineral water’s ability to reap health benefits such as Volvic, Evian etc. It seems wrong that we should have a choice of which ‘healthy’ water we should be able to purchase when many in the developing world struggle to source any.

The increasingly globalised capitalist nature of water supply will only seek to further exploit those in need, as is observable within Bolivia. The UN World Water Development Report of 2012 predicted in 2030, 47% of world population will be living in areas of high water stress, yet we in the developed world still take water resources for granted.

©Alejandro Erickson/Creative Commons License

©Alejandro Erickson/Creative Commons License

It is clear that water inequalities are becoming increasingly politicised and there should now exist a fundamental framing of them as a global issue requiring global stewardship and solutions. The reaction to the water barons operating within Bolivia offers us a forward thinking and integrated approach of how to tackle future water supply and control issues.

Development inherently promotes the empowerment of those living in poverty, strengthening stakes to essential resources. Within Bolivia, policies relating to water supply are now set by the government rather than narrated through hegemonic corporate diction, and offers opportunities for power to be transferred to localised decision markers. Public-public co-operatives and municipal governments constitute a devolved responsibility, ensuring those who were previously denied any say in the water debate are granted a voice.

Scaled benefits include the sharing of services and co-operative agreements which maintain the public control of costs all work towards safeguarding an affordable supply rather than commodification. President Morales’ decision to appoint a leader of the Cochabamba struggle as the nation’s first water minister signifies the necessity to give power back to the people. By ensuring profit cartels and monopolies aren’t able to supersede the needs of the people, power held at local levels offers greater individual autonomy of people’s lives, aiding the development process.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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