Water as a Basic Human Right

By Becca Bednarz '15

When thinking of things that unify us all as humans, not many people immediately think of water.

But the Global Citizenship Program’s seniors Elizabeth Keenan, Ellie McGuire, Megan Pulliam and Paige McDonald do. It was the focus of their capstone project, which they presented on March 19.

The GC Program’s senior capstone project asks its students to take the many fields they’ve explored during their time at Lehigh and put what they’ve learned about them to practice. The program itself tries to get the students to think critically about the world and the ways that globalization is changing.

“When we were discussing what we wanted to do as a capstone, we wanted to find an issue that we found to be truly global,” Keenan told the audience. “So, of course, we immediately thought of water because of how humans anywhere [need] water.”

During their research, the four discovered the story of the 2000 riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia, over a water privatization initiative.

According to McGuire, privatization is a process of transferring legal public authority of water resources to the private sector, which is then liable to manage, produce, and distribute the water like any other economic good.

“Privatization originally started in the 18th century in England,” McGuire said. “Basically, what they believed was that they could form and control the water system in a centralized well, [thereby] disadvantaging the areas on the periphery of the city. They believed that only those with the money could control the resource—which is very similar to what we’re seeing today in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

“It would be as if North Bethlehem and South Bethlehem were both controlled by the same water authority, but North Bethlehem was the only area of the city that was receiving access to water, whereas South Bethlehem would gain no access whatsoever,” she said.

In 2000, McGuire said, Bolivia was in extreme debt and essentially had no option but to privatize its water system. Once privatization was initiated, water use rates increased up to 400 percent.

“As you can imagine, these rate increases triggered a wave of anger among both poor and middle-class Cochabambinos,” McGuire said. “This forged a unique solidarity between labor unions, activists, students, professionals, small farmers and community groups.”

The resulting coalition of over 100,000 people proved cohesive and powerful enough to force the government to overturn the initiative.

“The Cochabamba water war became a symbol of hope for citizens and activists worldwide who rejected the neo-liberal model of globalization,” McGuire said.

Based upon such information, the group is now doing a comparative analysis between Cochabamba and nearby Allentown.

Pulliam said that her group wants to observe the cultural attitudes of Bolivians about water use because they suspect that not only are physical Bolivian water systems going to be different from those in Allentown, but that the attitudes of Bolivians toward water as a resource are also going to be very different than those of Americans.

Many of Cochabamba’s neighborhoods have developed water cooperatives, through which they have built the infrastructure of wells, pumps and piping to connect their households to a regional water grid, thereby unifying entire communities.

While in Cochabamba, the seniors surveyed residents about what they thought about their water systems, how much they paid for water and how much water they used each month.

“No one hesitated [to answer] for even a minute,” McGuire said. “I guarantee that none of you know how many gallons of water you used last month or how much you pay per gallon.”

Their preliminary findings show that Bolivians value water as a natural resource and are acutely aware of the water management process.

The group also illustrated the similarities between Cochabamba and Allentown, especially in terms of geography, size and issues of water management.

McDonald, who is spearheading the group’s Allentown-based research, said an enormous amount of debt has prompted Allentown to privatize its water system.

“The community was unable to pay pensions to people that were retiring […] so their options were either to seriously hike up taxes or to privatize their water system,” she said.

She said that people there simply don’t know the answers to questions such as how much water they use or how much they pay. However, she said there exists a small community within the city that is aware of how such privatization could have negative repercussions.

According to the group, water is not simply global issue; it is also considered a human right because it’s necessary for every living thing to have it to survive.

“Water distribution and, more important, who controls the world’s water supply is going to be an ongoing issue that is going to impact developing and developed countries alike,” McGuire said.