Everybody needs water as much as they need air or food. So what happens when a corporation steps in and turns public water into private profit? It can spell disaster in a poor community or a place where clean water is scarce. Ten years ago, Bolivians made headlines when protests by Cochabamba’s people overturned a private water contract that made water rates catastrophically expensive. Since then, people around the world have been fighting to keep water public. From Canadian towns banning wasteful bottled water to cities across France reclaiming privatized water systems, there’s a growing global movement of citizens taking back their water. Here are some key wins.
Uruguay Bans Privatization
Since 2004, water activists around the world have celebrated “Blue October,” marking a citizen-led movement that succeeded in reforming the Uruguayan constitution to ban water privatization.
In 2000, the Uruguayan government signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to privatize the nation’s water and sanitation systems. A broad coalition of environmental organizations, trade unions, artists, community activists, politicians, and progressive academics formed to fight the agreement. The coalition led a four-year campaign to change the Uruguayan constitution to recognize public water as a human right and ban the privatization of water services. The coalition’s petition drive gathered the signatures of 10 percent of the population and put the measure on the ballot. In October 2004, the constitutional measure passed with 60 percent of the vote, and the water system returned to public ownership.
Kerala Shuts Down Coke Plant
Plummeting groundwater levels and growing pollution caused by a large Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada, a village in a remote part of Kerala, India, led to crop failure and illness. In 2002, the women of Plachimada began a vigil in front of the plant gates. For over four years they maintained a constant presence there to fight one of the most powerful companies on the planet. As a result of their dedicated activism, the state government forced the factory to close in 2004 and two years later imposed a broader statewide ban on the use of groundwater in soft-drink production. The government of Kerala is now seeking compensation for the community’s agricultural and health losses. Coke denies pollution or overuse, and continues to pursue reopening the plant.
Soweto Activists Take Prepaid Water Meters to Court
Soweto was the center of resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Apartheid is gone, but for ordinary Sowetans, the daily struggle continues, this time over water. The South African government’s push for water privatization includes installation of prepaid water meters—which make water unavailable to the neediest people and are a documented factor in cholera outbreaks.
Life, Liberty, Water
A global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to ensure the universal right to clean water for all.
The Phiri 5, a group of Sowetan activists, took the government to court, claiming that their rights had been violated when prepaid water meters were forced upon only the poorest citizens. The Johannesburg High Court ruled in their favor in April 2008, but that decision was overturned on appeal in October 2009. Nonetheless, the courage of these five Sowetans has raised awareness worldwide of the dangers of prepaid water meters.
These are no longer isolated acts of resistance. For more than a decade, a global water justice movement has played an active role in creating international support for local struggles. By sharing stories through the Internet, the traditional media, and global conferences, water justice activists strengthen grassroots campaigns by connecting them to a global water struggle. People around the world are taking inspiration from these and many other examples of the power citizens wield when they act together to protect the right to water and preserve water as a commons.
- : Bolivia's historic grassroots victory against Bechtel is a reminder of the power of protest—as well as the importance of less romantic work.
- : Communities across the country are declaring citizens' right and duty
to protect their water, land, local economy, and way of life, even if
it means taking on the enormous power of corporations.