Originally written for Focus: Action for Global Justice.
Back in February, Comhlámh hosted a First Wednesday debate which put the ongoing resistance to water charges and Irish Water into a global context of popular struggles for water justice. The evening debate ‘From El Alto to Edenmore’ opened with a screening of Muireann De Barra and Aishling Crudden’s documentary, Water Rising.The film follows three protagonists – a family, a doctor and a water activist – as they deal with the everyday politics of accessing water in El Alto, the city that sprawls above La Paz in Bolivia.
On the face of it, the comparison between El Alto and Dublin’s Edenmore is not obvious. If we dig a little deeper, however, the comparison becomes instructive. In both contexts the problem of debt and the question of how water services are to be financed is central. The famous Water Wars that began in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2000 and spread to El Alto a couple of years later were sparked by the privatization of the public water system. This private contract was a condition tied to a loan from the World Bank. While the Irish government was not forced to privatize the water system as part of the bailout agreement with the Troika, it was obliged to introduce a model of water provision that was self-financing. The result, as we know, is the introduction of water charges. What is given less attention is that these water charges will be used to borrow additional money from global financial institutions (investment banks and fund managers). This means that the financing of our water services will be increasingly tied to the financial interests of global investors, something that is bound to have a significant impact on how our water services are managed and who will benefit from the money we pay for them.
A second struggle that has been at the heart of the Bolivian experience but less so here relates to democracy and power: who decides how our water services are managed and how? As the documentary ‘Water Rising’ showed, communities without access to water in El Alto have organized themselves to dig wells, lay pipes, maintain water systems and decide how they should be managed and for whom. Even today, these community-managed water systems refuse to be incorporated within the public water system because they recognize that their power lies in coming together in regular assemblies to make collective decisions about issues that affect them. This doesn’t mean that these communities ignore the state – which performs important and necessary functions – but that they refuse to abdicate their power to a single, centralized entity and in the process reduce democratic participation to an occasional vote. While there is nothing like this scale of self-government in Ireland, the basic point remains: decisions over how our water resources are used and managed are not just technical matters to be left up to experts or politicians. The water justice movement in Ireland should take this important lesson from Bolivia and translate it into a broader effort to reclaim the public good and democratise the political system.