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BOLIVIA
El Alto without water
José Antonio Aruquipa
3/10/2005
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Government dilatory tactics on water contract affects the poorest.

El Alto, a highland district on the outskirts of La Paz, is unique for several reasons. With 800,000 people, it is the urban zone with the highest rate of demographic growth in the country.

El Alto´s population is mostly Aymara-speaking and its residents were protagonists of the October 2003 "gas war" that left more than 60 people and 200 wounded and forced former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign.

Although El Alto´s center shows signs of development with buildings of up to six floors, most of the homes in the 4,000-meter-high district are two stories. They all have something in common however: they have zinc roofs and are trimmed with tin-plated channels that decline towards barrels or tanks which residents place in the most secure part of the patio.

"It is a way of saving rain water, since a high percentage of the people do not have a water connection. They have learned to find a supply on their own," said Juan Quispe, a resident of Villa Cosmos, one of the most remote neighborhoods of El Alto.

When it does not rain, the people use holes dug into the ground on their patios. At least 200,000 residents of El Alto lack water.

Deprived of right to water

The water distribution firm, Aguas del Illimani, owned by French transnational Suez Lyonnaisse des Eaux, decided to limit its service to clients in an area that was calculated in 1997, when it signed the contract, and almost a quarter of a million people were deprived of the basic human right to water.

Some 70,000 "fortunate" families that live in the areas of service also do not have water service because the connection price was increased to US$445 (some 3,560 bolivianos, equivalent to eight minimum wages), making it inaccessible for them.

The rest - those who have water service and pay a tariff indexed in dollars - suffer abuses from company officials who cut off the service at the slightest delay in payment and make irregular charges for "leaks" they never prove, said Elena Cortés, resident of La Ceja, probably the most well-to-do neighborhood of El Alto.

"Termination" of the contract

To put an end to these anomalies, the Federation of the Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE) on Jan. 10 called an indefinite civil strike "to expel Aguas del Illimani."

The government of President Carlos Mesa initially tried to "revise" the company´s contract in a bid to derail the protest. Together with the demand to reverse the fuel rise decreed on Dec. 31 and the call for autonomy of the eastern region of Santa Cruz, the protest in El Alto forced the president to threaten his resignation (See editor´s note below).

In light of the force of El Alto´s demand, on Jan. 13 the president signed a decree to proceed with the "termination" of the contract with Aguas del Illimani. Mesa declared he was "proud" for having resolved the conflict with "dialogue, patience, reason, balance and good sense."

Two days after the promulgation of the decree, the residents of El Alto celebrated their "peaceful victory" and marched enthusiastically to celebrate the company´s expulsion.

The celebration, however, lasted longer than the president´s word. On Feb. 17, he took advantage of university symposium to warn that the decision to rescind the contract with Aguas del Illimani put Bolivia at "zero" in terms of foreign cooperation and investment.

"The global establishment has placed us in the red light as a country that does not guarantee legal security," he said.

Change of attitude

Mesa´s change of attitude was influenced by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux´s warnings to go to international arbitration, the announcement of the suspension of $10 million in funds from Germany as part of a total budget of $35 million lent by the World Bank for the expansion of the water service in El Alto and the demand of the Papal Nuncio Ivo Scapolo "to respect the accords" with the companies.

By law, the Superintendency of Basic Services of the Ministry of Services and Public Works is the body responsible in deciding the termination of the company´s contract. Only two days after taking on the task, its director, Álvaro Camacho, resigned and was replaced by Erico Navarro, a veteran technocrat who in 1997 advised and facilitated the signing of the service contract with Aguas del Illimani.

Now, Navarro is refusing to accelerate the termination of the contract with the company arguing that an immediate rupture would take the Bolivian state to an arbitration process in which the government would have to defer to the decision of arbitrators. Navarro seeks to negotiate with the company in order to end the contract in a "friendly way."

On confirming that the government would go back on its commitments, FEJUVE leader Abel Mamani announced the "rupture of dialogue" and the truce with Mesa.

"He lied to us, we were fooled, we showed a lot of arguments but unfortunately the government does not have the will. Aguas del Illimani continues to operate, continue to issue receipts in which they overcharge for their service, the abuses continue," said Mamani on Feb. 21 before starting a hunger strike with six other neighborhood leaders.

EDITOR´S NOTE. As this edition closed, President Carlos Mesa presented his resignation to Congress in the midst of a wave of protests called by FEJUVE and the Movement to Socialism - headed by deputy and leader of coca growers Evo Morales. Morales had demanded the celebration of a Constituent Assembly and the approval of a Hydrocarbons Law that imposes taxes of 50 percent on oil companies. In a message to the nation on March 6, Mesa harshly criticized Morales as well as Mamani of the FEJUVE and the businessmen in Santa Cruz who are demanding autonomy, Mesa said his work had reached "the limit of what is possible."


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