Of Water and Climate and Where We are Headed…

19 04 2010

In the days leading up to the People’s Conference on Climate Change, another international event, related in theme but organized independently, was held in Cochabamba. The Third Annual Feria del Agua (Water Fair), announced many months before Evo Morales invited the world to the People’s Climate Summit, celebrated the Tenth Anniversary of the event that put Cochabamba on the global map of popular resistance – la guerra del agua.

From April 15 to 19th at a worker’s center outside central Cochabamba, the many small and large collectives that deliver water service to the city’s most marginalized communities, along with the small non-profits, progressive academics, and humanitarian groups that accompany them, held a celebration of their achievements in providing the most basic of services: potable drinking water and decent sanitation.

La zona sur is a wide swath of poor communities at the southern edge of the city that was settled informally throughout the eighties by displaced miners and campesinos; these neighborhoods, highly organized and militant, were some of the principal protagonists of the struggle in 2000 that led to the expulsion of the multinational Bechtel, which had privatized the water under World Bank conditionalities. What became known as the water war then set off a long chain of historic events, leading to the founding of Bolivia’s Water Ministry, the election of Evo Morales, and, crucially, to similar anti-privatization efforts throughout the continent.

Typically, the gains of the water war have yet to reach la zona sur – hence the need for small, autonomous water committees that continue to serve the needs of the local population. And, hence the motivation on the part of these water committees to hold a public event celebrating their work.

In the words of Marcela Olivera, an organizer of the fair and the coordinator of a continental network defending the human right to water, “The feria del agua has been important in two ways: one, to show people from the outside the work of the local water committees; and two, to remind the water committees that their work has international repercussions. This fact is often lost in the day to day effort to keep the water flowing.”

But what does this have to do with the climate crisis?

Danilo Urrea, from Colombia, has worked for a number of years in the struggle against water privatization and the movement for water justice. I cornered him at the Feria del Agua and asked him to clarify the links between water and climate.

“The water struggle and the climate struggle are linked in many ways,” Danilo told me. “First is the defense of a common good which is integral, in its cycle, to maintaining the balance of nature. Protecting watersheds is essential to maintaining a stable climate, to maintaining fertile soils, to stabilizing temperatures. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” he said. “The ecological relation between water and climate is important, but just as important is the political relation.”

“When we struggle to protect our water as a common good, we are also struggling against a system whose goal is to privatize all of life. To wage a struggle against water privatization is to confront the giant corporations, to confront the governments whose policies aim to plunder and not to protect, and to struggle for a life built on justice and dignity.”

Standing with Danilo and other Latin American water activists was Adriana Marquisio, the former President of the Uruguayan Union of Water and Sanitation Workers. Marquisio was active in Uruguay’s constitutional reform process which, in 2004, made Uruguay the first country in Latin America to recognize water as a fundamental human right. When I asked her about the relation between this event and the climate summit, she waxed lyrical: “Where are we? We are in the place where, ten years ago, all of Latin America began rising up against privatization. We are celebrating ten years of struggling together, and celebrating the ratification of our struggles in our new constitutions. What is the relation between this event and the climate summit? The climate crisis has been imposed by the same system that tries to steal our water, our land, everything.”

But Marquisio is skeptical of the political process: “In Copenhagen I saw a lot of non-governmental organizations talking about the effects on their people – but there was no space for the people themselves to speak. I don’t think COP 16 (coming up in Cancun later this year) will have any better effect than Copenhagen. Why? Because I don’t think governments have the ability to speak about what is really happening. What they’ll do is come up with some big agreement with the U.S., with China, that signifies the greening of capitalism, but fails to challenge capitalism itself, which is the root of the problem. As social movements, we understand the roots of the problem; if some government wants to join us, sure, we welcome you, but you’ll have to join us in demanding total system change, a change where we return to a human scale of production, where we respect the right of nature to produce fresh water, to produce healthy soils, to produce natural and social equilibrium. Because this is where we’re going, with or without the governments and their negotiations.”

After the Feria del Agua, then, beginning tomorrow, comes the Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth….”Because this is where we’re going….”

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