Guardian

In Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador disputes over water shortages are part of a wider fight for equal access and shared responsibility

 Ecuadorian natives clash with the police 30km from Quito in 2010 in protest of a proposed water privatisation measure.

Ecuadorians clash with police 30km from Quito in 2010 in a protest over proposed water privatisation. Photograph: Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP/Getty Images

                As water scarcity deepens across Latin America, political instability grows

In Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador disputes over water shortages are part of a wider fight for equal access and shared responsibility

Bolivia was shaken to its roots in the spring of 2000, when tens of thousands in the city of Cochabamba protested against the privatisation of the city’s water services. One person died and scores were injured in weeks of protest, the company was ejected and the political crisis – known as the first water war of the 21st century – was a catalyst that led to the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

Morales is still president, but as the longest and deepest drought in Bolivia’s recent history continues to bite in cities across the country, he has cause to fear that water could be his government’s political undoing, too.

As the national water emergency enters its fourth month, drinking water is rationed to a few days a week in many cities, the country’s reservoirs remain close to empty, and its second biggest lake has already dried up. As anger mounts, protests have been held across the country.

Morales attributes Bolivia’s drought to global warming. But, it is not as simple as that, says Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the UN in global climate change talks. Not only could Bolivia have lessened the impacts of the drought with good planning, but it has exacerbated the effects of climate change by backing damaging developments, says Solon.

“Bolivia’s glaciers are melting; they have probably lost 40% of their ice because of climate change. But the water in the reservoirs for cities mainly comes from rains, not glaciers,” he says. “If this drought continues and it does not rain, [usually between November and April] we will have a serious political crisis.”

“Cities are vulnerable to climate change but government policies are making climate change worse,” says Solon. “There has been a huge development of extractive industries, like soya, mining and mega dams. There has also been a lot of deforestation. These have all worsened the water situation and made Bolivia, and other Latin American countries, more vulnerable to climate change.”

Impact of mining in Peru

Demonstrators holding buckets protest over the ongoing drought in the centre of La Paz, Bolivia.
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Demonstrators holding buckets protest over the ongoing drought in the centre of La Paz, Bolivia. Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters

Social and environmental disputes over scarce water resources have often boiled over in neighbouring Peru where international mining companies are widely accused of polluting rivers, grabbing water and reducing the amount available to farmers. Mega dams, agribusiness and climate change have all affected water supplies, say grassroots groups.

Strikes and confrontations over the alleged hijacking of water supplies and pollution from mining led to 51 deaths in the country between 2011 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch. As demonstrations increase, martial law has been declared in two provinces. Walter Gutierrez, Peru’s ombudsman has separately reported more than 200 current conflicts between mines and communities, most involving water use.

“They are condemning us to a slow death,” says Nestor Cuti, a union leader objecting to a mine and dam threatening to affect the Apurímac river in Peru’s southern highlands. “In the future, we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing.”

Climate change is making the weather in Peru more extreme, according to scientists. Last month, a number of people died as the severe drought and wildfires gave way to torrential downpours and landslides. Floods clogged water treatment plants with rocks and debris, forcing authorities to restrict water use in Lima and Arequipa, Peru’s second-biggest city.

Water controlled by the elite in Ecuador

Municipal workers use a water truck to remove stagnant water from a neighbourhood in Chiclayo, Peru
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Municipal workers use a water truck to remove stagnant water from a neighbourhood in Chiclayo, Peru. Torrential rains, landslides and overflowing rivers have affected over 200,000 since the beginning of the year. Photograph: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

On the equator, Ecuador is less vulnerable to water shortages but small farmers have complained bitterly of water grabs by agribusiness and the mining industry. In 2015, following a new water law which allows for further privatisation of water and gives mining companies access to scarce water sources in some regions, indigenous movements joined 20 groups of farmers and environmentalists to march from the Amazon region to Quito to demand equal access to water.

Ecuador is the only country in the world whose constitution declares water as a human right, but there is still great inequality of access, says Manuela Picq, a Franco-Brazilian academic at Amherst college, and a former professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

“It is said that Ecuador’s wealthiest 1% controls 64% of fresh water,” she says. “A single mine can use more water in a day than an entire family in 22 years.”

New politics emerging around water

Picq, who was deported from Ecuador in 2015 for her work with indigenous movements, sees water as part of a new politics emerging in Andean and central American countries – crossing traditional left and right boundaries, propelled by social movements, and infused with the philosophy of indigenous peoples, which views water as the source of life.

These movements, she says, are acting as a new democratic force, holding governments to account, and strongly opposing the mining industry for its abuse of water.

“[Access to water] is part of a wider political struggle. It is about changing politics so that economies are not based on the extraction of resources,” she says. “It crosses all boundaries and goes well beyond indigenous peoples. The call for water echoes a much larger, collective desire for equal redistribution and shared responsibility that is transmitted across generations.”

Other Latin American countries are also experiencing renewed water conflicts as climate change affects rainfalls while mining and agribusiness demand more. In Chile, the first country in the world to privatise water in the 1980s, political momentum is gathering to reform free market laws and make water accessible to all. Climate change, expected to severely reduce water availability in Santiago and elsewhere, has been blamed for devastating unseasonal rains which last week led to floods and left millions without piped water.

In central America, Guatemalan former vice-president Eduardo Stein sees communities trying to take back control of water supplies. “Centralisation has made it easier for corporate actors to take advantage. Sugar, palm, and banana plantations often use a disproportionate share of water resources, even diverting rivers in some cases, a crime the government is too weak to find and punish. Already there is more internal migration as villagers leave dry areas and create friction with host communities,” he says.

“The state is working, but in the interests of a chosen few. When it comes to ensuring equitable access to water and other natural resources, the government has failed to provide the services the constitution mandates to all of the people.”

“Water has a big impact on people and politics. People are becoming really angry,” says Solon. “This anger feeds into politics and governments are losing popularity.”