"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

In the advanced capitalist countries people take water almost for granted, or at least they did until recently. Now more and more of us have to pay huge bills for our water. In the underdeveloped countries, however it is much worse, with over one billion having no access to safe water. Water will become a source of class conflict, as the experience of Bolivia has confirmed.

Most of us take it for granted that when we turn on a tap we have access to safe and clean water to drink, to cook and to wash. However, 20% of the world's population, over a billion people, lack access to safe drinking water and about 2.6 billion people - 40% - have no access to basic sanitation.

The issue of water is one of the largest public health issues but access to water is primarily a class issue. Without question, the world water crisis condemns billions of people to a perpetual struggle to survive at the subsistence level - millions are living on less than $1 a day. A third of the world's population lives in "water stressed" countries (i.e. where water is scarce or of poor quality) and that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades.

Some countries have additional problems, including high levels of arsenic and fluoride in drinking water. Many women and young girls in rural areas around world must walk as much as six miles everyday to fetch water for their families. Due to this manual labour, women and children are prevented from pursuing an education or earning an income.

Yet lack of access to water and sanitation is not just a rural issue. In 2007, for the first time in history, the majority of people will live in urban areas. Even the UN admits this will result in larger slum populations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and these new city residents face overcrowding, inadequate housing, and a lack of water and sanitation.

Not being able to access sanitation and safe water contributes to increased poverty, poorer health and high levels of child deaths. In 2004, 2.2 million people died from drinking unsafe water, of which about 90% were children under the age of 5 (UNICEF/WHO 2005). Unsafe water is estimated to kill 4,500 children per day, mostly a result of diarrhoeal diseases - far more than are killed by Malaria and AIDS combined. It is equivalent to 25 fully loaded jumbo jets crashing every day!

Preventable deaths

These deaths are easily preventable. Under capitalism, however, water is only an issue when it can guarantee large profits. Look no further than the privatisation of water in the UK where last year a host of private water companies declared massive increases in profits. Thames Water had a 31% increase in profits despite admitting that it had missed its leak reduction target for a third successive year (The Daily Telegraph, 22.6.06) and Severn Trent announced a 30% rise in profits to £400m despite being under criminal investigations by the Serious Fraud Office over false reporting - this figure would have been higher but for the £10.6m it was ordered to pay back to customers. Other profit increases reported included United Utilities who had a 21% rise in profits to £481m; Pennon saw profits rise by 25% to £111m and Anglian Water owner AWG announced that annual profits had trebled to £109m. (BBC 7.6.06) These massive profits even led the British TV programme Panorama to ask whether the water industry should be renationalised.

The world's financial markets are in no doubt about the benefits to big business of water privatisation, prompting one money magazine to run a feature on, How to profit from the world's water crisis. It boasts:

"Overall, the ‘scramble for water assets' has now seen bidders put almost £12bn on the table, says The Daily Telegraph. But the buying frenzy isn't over yet. The losers in these auctions may well be tempted to bid for one of the several other UK water companies, which are ‘ripe for takeover'. United Utilities, Severn Trent, Northumbrian Water, Kelda - the former Yorkshire Water - and Pennon, the owner of South West Water, are all seen as potential targets. As a result, their shares have soared by up to 50% over the past year." (Money Week, 19.10.06)

They continue, "So what makes utilities look so good to bidders? The reliability of the returns they offer. The system of economic regulation imposed by Ofwat offers known rates of return over five-year pricing cycles, which is attractive to private equity and infrastructure funds.... The problem here is that this is just about the only thing that makes the water utilities attractive and bidding presupposes that Ofwat keeps playing along... there are still plenty of opportunities for investors. The profits will come from companies that help nations improve the water that they already have." (Money Week, 19.10.06)

Some years ago vice-president of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, said that the wars of the 21st century would be about water. Soon after this, the World Bank adopted a policy of water privatisation and full-cost water pricing. This certainly caused a war - a class war - in Bolivia's third largest city, Cochabamba. Their struggle proved that the privatisation of water can be fought.


In the late 1990s the World Bank refused to guarantee a US$25million loan to refinance water services in Cochabamba unless the government sold the public water system to the private sector and passed the costs on to consumers. Only one bid was considered and the utility was turned over to a subsidiary of a conglomerate led by Bechtel, the giant engineering company implicated in the infamous Three Gorges Dam in China (which has caused the forced relocation of 1.3 million people). Interestingly at that time, a World Bank official attended Bolivian government cabinet meetings as a full participant.

In January 2000, the private company announced the doubling of water prices. In a country where the minimum wage was less than US$70 per month, many people were hit with monthly water bills of $20 or more. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more than food; for those on a minimum wage or unemployed, water bills suddenly accounted for close to half their monthly budgets. To turn the screw even further, the World Bank granted monopolies to private water concessions, announced its support for full-cost water pricing and pegged the cost of water to the American dollar. It also declared that none of its loan could be used to subsidise water services for those living in poverty.

Permits to access

All water, even from community wells, required permits to access, and peasants and small farmers even had to buy permits to gather rainwater on their property. This followed similar attacks in La Paz (the capital of Bolivia) and El Alto when the World Bank made privatisation of water a condition of a loan to the Bolivian government. The private consortium that took control of the water, Aguas del Illimani, was owned jointly by the French water giant, Suez, and a set of shareholders that included an arm of the World Bank.

The population of Cochabamba responded with a general strike which shut down their city for four days. This was led by workers, peasants and community leaders. The government, led by President Banzar (a dictator for most of the 1970s), was forced to the negotiating table with the promise of a reduction in the price and an agreement to work out the details in two weeks. The general strike was halted but a month later still no agreement had been agreed. On 4 February 2004 thousands attempted to march in Cochabamba but the President turned once again to the use of violent repression. He called out the police, who engulfed marchers for two days, leaving six people dead and 175 injured, including two children blinded.

But the workers and peasants of Cochabamba did not back down. In a survey of more than 60,000 residents in March, 90% said that private company must leave and the water system returned to public ownership. They pointed to the privatisation of water in Buenos Aires where 7,500 workers were fired and prices rose, as an example of why they felt privatisation had to be opposed.


Another general strike was called on 4 April, again closing down the city. Blockades cut off the main highway and protestors occupied the city centre. Four days into the demonstrations, the government declared martial law. Police arrested the strike leaders, taking them from their beds in the middle of the night and charging them with sedition, shutting down radio stations in mid-broadcast. This attempt at repression simply served to spur the movement to new heights.

The strike leaders were released after four hours and the daily strike meetings in the central plaza more than doubled to 40,000. The water company officials tried to claim that the protests were riots sponsored by cocaine producers against a crackdown on coca production. However, the might of Cochabamba finally forced the government to concede on 10 April - signing an agreement that agreed to all the demonstrators' demands.

Cochabamba's water supply is now run by a local water board with workers' participation as a minority on this board. Marxists are critical about many aspects of the campaign by the Coordinadora (the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life) such as why the movement was not generalised and linked up with other struggles nationally, and settling for workers' participation rather than workers' management of the local water board. However, there are many positive lessons, notably the ability and willingness of the Coordinadora to lead a city-wide insurrection to halt privatisation. This will have a lasting effect, not only in preventing Bechtel from getting their greedy hands on Cochabamba's water supply, but crucially in giving confidence to workers and peasants in Cochabamba in their own strength.