I finally got around to seeing the Spanish film, "Even the Rain," appropriately enough on March 22 which the UN named as " world water day". The film, with a script by Paul Laverty, the long-time script writer for Ken Loach's socially intense films, is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn. I was drawn to the film because it got rave reviews and was Spain's entry for best foreign language film at the academy awards. I also wanted to see it because it is set in Cochabamba, Bolivia where I lived for two summers, in 1983 and 1984. During my stay there I noticed a stupendous inflationary spiral in the Bolivian peso from one summer to the next. I also, the second summer, came down, with six other students at the Maryknoll's Instituto de Idiomas, with hepatitis A, due to contaminated drinking water. Finally, since the film deals with the water wars in Cochabamba in 2000, it highlighted for me the need for careful thought about clean water and water wastage, as well as water rights.
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosa, Even the Rain tells the story of a Spanish film crew making a film about the tyrannical abuse of Indians by Christopher Columbus and the rebellion of the Taino Indians. The figures of Antonio de Montesinos and Bartoleme de las Casas feature in the film as religious voices demanding that the Indians be treated with dignity and not enslaved. The film cast a Bolivian actor as Daniel who portrays Hatuey, the leader of the Taino rebellion. Ironically, Christopher Columbus never set foot in Bolivia but the film crew chose it because it was a cheaper lovation. The film which exposes the exploitation of Indians under Columbus paradoxically exploited its own extras who were paid a measly two dollars a day.
Daniel is also a leader of a protest against the privatization of water in Cochabamba. In fact, in 2000 a general strike protesting water privatization shut down Cochabamba for four straight days. So, as a kind of docu-drama within the film, we enter the story of this strike. Because of the severe inflation of the 1980's, the World Bank declared that it would not renew a loan to Bolivia unless it privatized water services ( delivery of fresh water and sanitation facilities). The World Bank believed that poor governments are often too plagued by local corruption and ill equipped to run public systems efficiently. It contended that the use of private corporations would open the door to needed investment and skilled management. In fact, most of the poorest neighborhoods in Cochabamba were not hooked up to the state-run water network. State subsidies to the water utility, then, went mainly to middle class neighborhoods or industries. The poor paid far more for water of dubious purity dispensed from trucks or handcarts.
The Bolivian government passed a law, law 2009, which appeared to give a total monopoly over all water resources to a consortium, Aguas del Tunari, the only private corporative consortium willing to bid on the project. They would take over from the state-controlled agency, SEMAPA and assume its debts. The Consortium included International Water ( England), the Italian utility, Edison, Bechtel from the United States and a firm from Spain. The broad nature of Law 2009 seemed to outlaw the many independently run community-based water systems which the campesinos used ( and which had not been provided by SEMAPA). In fact, the law led many to claim that the government would require a special license for people to even collect rain water from their roofs ( hence, the title of the film).
The foreign engineers and managers, little acquainted with Bolivian reality, raised water rates an average of 35% to about $20 dollars a month ( in a country where most earned about or even less than $100 a month). This led to the protests and a state of emergency called by the government because of the strikes. In reaction to the protests, many of the protesters were injured and a high school student shot dead by an army bullet. In time, the government told the employeess of Aguas del Tunari that it could not guarantee their safety if they remained in Cochabamba. Protests swept the entire country ( including a protest by coca growers of Bolivia led by then-Congressman Evo Morales, elected President of Bolivia in 2005).
In the end, water prices in Cochabamba returned to their pre-2000 levels, with a group of community leaders running the restored state utility company, SEMAPA. Even the Rain depicts this as a hard won victory for human rights. Yet, still half the people of Cochabamba are without water and those who have it only receive intermittent services. SEMAPA still deals with graft and inefficiencies and lacks money to build new facilities, pipe lines etc. Because of a kind of patronage system, SEMAPA employs almost double the number of workers it really needs. It can not raise rates and no international agency will lend them money. One report notes that " in Cochabamba, those who are not on the network and who have no well, pay ten times as much for their water as the relatively wealthy residents who are hooked up." One activist during the water strike now says: " Afterwards, what had we really gained ? We were still hungry and poor."
The UN declared in 2010 that clean water is " a fundamental human right". But the deliverance of it is still difficult. Too much water gets wasted. Sanitation facilities fail to solve pollution from mining and agricultural run offs. After the Cochamba riots, James Wolfeson of the World Bank maintained that free or subsidized delivery of water leads to abuse of a precious resource. " The biggest problem with water is the waste of water through lack of charging", he commented. Maybe, as in The Union of South Africa, the government should guarantee to all a decent minimum of water and then let the market decide, above that minimum, what water is worth. In all likelihood, we will see more water wars around the world as in Cochabamba. Providing safe drinking water for all--one of the UN millennial goals--will also demand a more careful attention to water scarcity and a just allocation of its real costs ( including to agriculture and mining interests). Nor is this issue of water scarcity only found in Bolivia. In Kern County, California, oil interests get subsidized water to turn tar into oil ( with ten gallons of water needed to produce one gallon of oil). Meanwhile, a number of towns in Kern County lack and adequate supply of fresh and clean water!