From Ireland to Bolivia, there’s something in the water

Fifteen years on from Bolivia’s ‘water war’, Thomas McDonagh looks at the developing parallels between those dramatic events and the current Irish battle over domestic water charges

June 8, 2015 · 7 min read

dublin-says-noWater protesters in Ireland. Photo: William Murphy, Flickr

For months people across Ireland have been protesting against the introduction of charges for domestic water – which, until the first wave of bills arrived in April, had been paid for through direct taxation. Opposition to the charges peaked on 1 November, when more than 150,000 people attended 90 different protests across the country, building on months of local campaigning. Equally spectacularly, just weeks earlier almost 100,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to express their anger at a reform that was agreed as part of the 2010 bailout brokered by the Irish government with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The campaign still has considerable momentum and may well get a new lease of life as payment becomes a pressing issue.

The events in Ireland are reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia 15 years ago, during Cochabamba’s famous ‘water war’. In April 2000, this city of half a million people – about the size of Dublin – joined together across boundaries of class and ethnicity and literally shut itself down in three separate general strikes that had the common objective of taking back their water system from a foreign multinational.

In a grassroots struggle that resembled David and Goliath to the point that it even saw the use of slingshots on the city’s streets, the victory over the Bechtel Corporation became known across the world. But less understood is how this struggle over water radically transformed the politics of a country in ways that have been enormous and enduring.

The echoes of Bolivia in the current Irish water conflict are clear. One is that the struggle has awoken a sleeping giant, mobilising people in ways that until recently seemed impossible. And two, how the struggle plays out may have equally enormous and enduring effects on Irish political culture.

There’s something about water – whether it be in Cochabamba or Coolock – that gets to people on both a rational and a visceral level in ways that other issues don’t. We rely on it to meet our most basic needs. And when elites begin to mess with it, whether it’s polluting our water sources, using them for mining or fracking, or potentially putting water out of people’s reach by turning it into a ‘product’ on the market, people get angry. Appropriately, in Spanish, when you want to say ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, the equivalent term is ‘the drop of water that made the glass overflow’.

Abusive economics

In Bolivia then as in Ireland now, people had been on the receiving end of abusive economic policies. What in Ireland is being called austerity, in Bolivia was known as ‘structural adjustment’: cuts upon more cuts, and a relentless drive to privatise public services and infrastructure. The family silver was being sold off in an obsessive drive to balance the books, often without democratic consent or any questioning of the conditions under which the national debt had been accumulated. While in Ireland it’s the ECB and IMF calling the shots, in Bolivia it was the World Bank that was insisting on water privatisation.

Bolivian activists didn’t just straight off denounce structural adjustment when the water war began, just as Irish activists didn’t begin talking about the injustices of austerity at the start of their water conflict. Both struggles, however, pushed the tip of a concealed iceberg above the surface long enough for people who never normally think of themselves as activists to get a clear glimpse of how the economic system works against their interests.

Most of the time, that system operates below the surface, with corruption and corporate encroachment into our democratic spaces only on the radar of activists and specialist researchers. And the system is safe when it stays below the surface like this. When the ship hits the iceberg, suddenly the mechanisms of the system are revealed so that people who aren’t usually activists can see it for what it is.

Ear of the public

There’s something about struggles like these over water that give us the ear of the general public in ways that most of the time we only imagine. As Oscar Olivera, the trade unionist leader of Coordinadora del Agua in Cochabamba during the water revolt, pointed out, ‘We always repeated those slogans “Death to the World Bank”, “Death to the IMF”, “Down with Yankee imperialism” but I believe that [the water war was] the first time that the people understood in a direct way.’

The lesson from Cochabamba 15 years ago and from Ireland today is that we only rarely accrue popular power sufficient to challenge the system from the situations that we carefully plan. More often than not, it comes from spotting the right moments – usually provoked by our adversaries – that reveal the system for what it is and the ways it negatively affects people’s lives in clear and understandable ways. At these moments, new activists emerge from the shadows of a normally disengaged public.

According to Maria Eugenia Flores, a young activist coming of age at the time of the water revolt, ‘That historic moment in Cochabamba allowed me to see clearly what was happening in my country, to understand the politics of water, privatisation, the struggle to defend this resource and especially to get to know other people like me who were waking up and opening their eyes to the injustices that we were living through.’

When these spaces open up, the possibility of change seems within reach. So much that was taken for granted in a political culture can turn out to be a lot less set in stone than it first appeared.

Losing their fear

In Bolivia, following the water revolt, the parties that had dominated the presidency for decades vanished from the political map in less than five years, along with the policies that had driven the country’s economics. As soon as it became clear that they could be challenged and beaten, people lost their fear and traditional political power structures came tumbling down.

In Ireland, many of the political arrangements that seem to be immutable may well turn out to be as thin and vulnerable as they were in Bolivia – and are proving to be in places such as Greece and Spain.

As Brendan Ogle, trade unionist and spokesperson for the Right2Water campaign, has said about the achievements of the movement in Ireland: ‘Until now people felt alone; they felt that what the Troika want, what the IMF want, what the ECB want, is what the government will deliver, not what the citizens want. They now know that they’re not alone.’

There’s something about water and the ways that it unites people in common cause that can expand people’s horizons to the possibilities of broader social change. And while moments of victory – when edifices crumble – are unpredictable, fleeting and rare, when they do happen, we sometimes find that everything is changed.

In the words of Maria Eugenia Flores, ‘In the face of so much injustice, we stood up and lost our fear.’

Thomas McDonagh is a researcher and project coordinator at the Democracy Centre based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is contributing author of Unfair, Unsustainable and Under the Radar: How Corporations Use Global Investment Rules to Undermine a Sustainable Future and Corporate Conquistadors: The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Destruction

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