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Lessons from Uruguay's water victory

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I am back from Uruguay now and trying to think about how we can incorporate lessons learned from the Uruguayan campaign on the right to water into our own work at the Council of Canadians.

I have been extolling the merits of the referendum that lead to the recognition of public water as a human right, but as someone commented on one of my previous blogs, referenda are not necessarily a magical solution for positive change.

Not even in Uruguay.

Recently, in the November 2009 election, a majority of Uruguayans voted against the annulment of an impunity law that prevents the investigation and punishment of human rights abuses committed during the military regime that lasted from 1973 1984. It’s hard to understand why such a straightforward attempt to achieve justice and correct historical wrongs was rejected in a country where, I’ve been told, almost everyone has a family member who has disappeared or been imprisoned and tortured or otherwise ill-treated by the military dictatorship.

Lesson 1 – Involve all sectors of society

As Ana Dominguez and Marcel Achkar, two Geography professors involved in the right to water campaign explain, the fact that 60% of Uruguayans voted to ban the privatization of water services is a testimony to the strength of a four-year campaign that involved all sectors of society including unions, environmental organizations, progressive academics, writers, musicians and others. It took more than a hundred workshops held across the country, door-to-door campaigning, television advertisements, political lobbying, poster campaigns, in short every popular education tool, media outreach strategy, political campaigning tactic they could think of was employed to bring 60% of the population on board.

Lesson 2 – Learn from international examples

Initially, according to Adriana Marquizo, president of the water workers’ union, FFOSE, even the water workers were not convinced that water privatization was a bad idea. Uruguay, like Canada is a water-rich country where the majority of citizens already benefited from strong public water services. “We had to learn from the experiences of our neighbours in countries like Bolivia,” she says referring to the Bolivian town of Cochabamba where massive protests were held in 2000 by members of the community who were unable to pay water rates charged by water corporation Bechtel.

Lesson 3 – Prepare for strong opposition

Water justice challenges the core of the neoliberal agenda and has powerful opponents. Uruguayan water justice activists had to work against opposition from the IMF, Suez and local politicians. They had to deal with the threat that corporations would sue. The public utility wound up challenging the Spanish corporation that ran Aguas de Bilbao for failing to meet the obligations outlined in its contract with the state and buying out Suez.

Then they had to deal with their language being co-opted by a right-wing opposition party, el Partido Independente which threatened to put forward an alternative proposal for a reform on the right to water that would resemble the civil society proposal closely enough to confuse the population while leaving loopholes that would allow for water privatization. In the end, the civil society coalition had built enough support within government to prevent this from happening explains Karin Nansen of REDES (Friends of the Earth Uruguay). The electorate ended up voting on the text that was drafted by civil society actors in consultation with the general public.

Lesson 4 – Legislative change is just the beginning

For many involved in the campaign however, this was only the first step. The referendum was a tool and the privatization of water services was the low hanging fruit that allowed civil society to engage the public and the government in developing a broad-ranging policy that went well beyond the privatization of water services according to Maria Selva Ortis of REDES. There is still much to be done says Javier Taks of the Casa Bertolt Brect, an NGO that remains active within the water coalition. “Water continues to be considered an economic resource and the movement needs to go from resistance to concrete proposals to address the emerging issues,” Taks explains.

REDES is currently working to raise awareness on the impacts of agribusiness on water resources in Uruguay. The Family farmers union recently announced that they could not co-exist with the large monocultures of soy, eucalyptus and rice that dominate rural Uruguay and use much of its water resources.

Nonetheless the 2004 reform provides solid legal grounds to protect water and the human right to water against corporate interest according to Alberto Villareal who is currently working for the Washington-based Food and Water Watch in Montevideo. And many concrete proposals are well underway.

The water reform of 2004 provided the building blocks for water justice in Uruguay, but the building of a society free from corporate control over water resources continues.

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