Cautious dialogue as conflict over water continues

2 February 2005

The deep freeze on communications between the World Bank’s water unit and civil society groups thawed a little at a recent dialogue. A revolt against private sector participation in Bolivia shows just how far there is to go.

Over 30 participants from civil society groups worldwide and a dozen World Bank staff attended a dialogue on water and sanitation in London in November. Hosted by UK-based NGO WaterAid, the dialogue was intended to build on a previous initiative from Bank staff with US NGOs in 2003. That effort was aborted due to weak buy-in from senior Bank staff. The objectives of the more recent dialogue were to build understanding between CSOs and Bank staff; share information about and provide an opportunity to input to Bank policies and operations in the water and sanitation sector; and identify areas for further work, whether jointly or separately undertaken.

A number of groups decided to boycott the November session. Sara Grusky, of Public Citizen’s Water for All campaign, protested that “it is clear that the World Bank does not have any serious intention of addressing our issues of concern. Nor could the organisers guarantee that the dialogue would take place in UN languages in order to include the participation of the non-English-speaking majority.”

the Bank needs the capabilities of civil society

Jamal Saghir, Bank director for water and energy, was reported to have found the experience of dialogue with civil society a “positive one”. Participating CSOs identified a number of areas for follow-up:

  • Information access and capacity building: A group of CSOs will work with the Bank in the first week of March to become familiar with all project documentation prepared at different stages of the Bank project cycle, understand the significance of these documents, and inform the Bank what documents are important to make public and how to do so.
  • Tariff structures, subsidies and cost recovery policies: Existing materials should be shared, and a glossary of terms created to establish a common vocabulary to enable further discussions.
  • Scaling up community interventions: A report is planned of cases of scaled-up community-based projects.
  • Lobbying, advocacy capacity building, sector coordination: An advocacy pack will be produced to assist efforts to prioritise water and sanitation issues in development plans.
  • Further dialogue: A dialogue with CSOs on cost recovery is scheduled for the Bank’s ‘Water Week’, 1-3 March in Washington. CSOs are to further explore how to continue dialogues with the Bank and to establish terms of engagement.

Many observers of the sector are asking why the Bank decided to re-start discussions with CSOs. Belinda Calaguas, senior water advisor at WaterAid, believes that it may be a recognition by the Bank that with increased lending in the sector, the Bank “needs both the oversight and the capabilities of civil society to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

To participate in follow-up to the dialogue contact Belinda Calaguas at WaterAid.

Citizens of El Alto claim victory in second ‘water war’

After three days of a general strike in early January, the Bolivian government has been forced to cancel the contract with Aguas del Illimani for water and sewer services in the cities of El Alto and La Paz. Citizens were dissatisfied with high costs and a lack of service in outlying areas. French water giant Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux owns 55 per cent of Aguas del Illimani; the IFC, the Bank’s private sector arm, holds an 8 per cent stake; the remainder is held by South American investors.

The decision to privatise water and sewage utilities in La Paz and Cochabamba was taken as a condition for the extension of a World Bank loan to Bolivia in 1997. The Bank provided nearly one quarter of the $68 million for the initial five-year phase of the project. In 2000, after a ‘water war’ and one protester killed, US multinational Bechtel was driven from Cochabamba.

NGOs have been calling for a multistakeholder review of private sector participation in water provision. So far, both the Bank and the UK government have resisted the calls.