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World Water Day 2007 made a splash in Peru

March 22, World Water Day, went unnoticed in many developed countries, but here in Peru where water is a serious concern, impressive events took place. The morning of the 22nd, hundreds of people joined at the Plaza 2 de Mayo in central Lima, and after the call from a shell by a representative from CONACAMI (National Commission of Communities Affected by Mining) the march began.

Stopping briefly at the Congress building, the marchers demanded their water rights: “The water is of the people—no privatization, stop the contamination!”. We passed by another group of protesters near the Congress building who were illegally fired workers under the Fujimori regime. In front of the building, gas stung our faces, making our eyes water.

The gas was surprising since it was a peaceful march. While everyone remained peaceful, Peruvians are determined to not let president Alan Garcia’s “Water for all” campaign underhand the current water laws and privatize the water. The main worry is that “water for all” does not really include “all”.

The march was organized by FENTAP (Federation of Potable Water and Sewage Workers of Peru) along with CONAGUA y VIDA (National Commission of the Defense of Water and Life.) Representatives from Acorn International led the march dressed in black, holding funeral flowers commemorating the death of the rivers in Lima from so much contamination. Sedapal, Lima’s public water company, provided people dressed up as a big drop of water, and another as a faucet.

The conclusion of the march took place at the Av. Abancay Bridge over the Rimac River with a speaker, Adriana Marquiso, from the CNDAV of Uruguay and the organizer of it all, Luis Isarra, the coordinator of FENTAP of Perú. Then led by Rodrigo Carpio of CONACAMI and a couple of Quechua women, a traditional indigenous ceremony was done on the bridge to bless the river. The Rimac River is an example of the consequences when a city of this size does not have an adequate water or sanitation system.

The day after the march, CONAGUA y VIDA continued its discussion with an International Forum “Water and Life: Sustainable and Participatory Alternatives outside of the Political Realm” with delegates from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Europe. The main theme of the talks was how to ensure that water stays in the hands of the public. In many towns, for example Chimbote and Huancayo, the public organized itself without national support to keep their water publicly owned. The international speakers discussed the necessary keys for successful water programs which are involvement and participation of citizens, a transparent program, and the overarching belief that water is a human right.

An unexpected and notable guest on the international panel was Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian activist known for his outstanding work organizing unions for factory workers and leading the protest that drove out a private company that took over the water system in Cochabamba in 2000. Olivera spoke of the success story of the Water War in Cochabamba and told us “when you’re fighting for water, you’re fighting for life.” Water represents life for humans, animals, and plants. He suggested that an important point to consider when looking at water programs is to look at who is making the decisions, who is calling the shots.

Representing Peru’s government sector, Congressman Dr. Yonhy Lescano Ancieta spoke on the legal aspects of water as a human right. While actually a rightist politician, he spoke like a leftist. He cited the UN Food and Agriculture Organization who reported in 1996 that 26 countries (230 million people) were suffering from lack of water. By the year 2020, the number would supposedly increase to 41 countries. Describing seriously concerning water situations in India (New Delhi), Africa, Pakistan and Iran, he asserted that the solution lies in a good government managing the situation and not letting the water fall into the hands of the private U.S. companies.

Private companies undermine public sector campaigns and give excuses as to why it’s better if the water is in the hands of private sector by saying that people will only care for their water if they have to pay for it, that people will learn water is indispensable, and that regular people don’t have the know-how to manage natural resources. Sound similar to the U.S.’s position on oil? Don’t the people who watch their glaciers disappear and rivers dry up know full well that water is precious and not to be wasted?

While the international panelists were moving and impressive, the panel of indigenous leaders came on stage and took us further to the left, away from the idea of the private sector of control. The earlier panel had discussed working against the neo-liberal forces and modifying and modernizing the laws regarding natural resources. One indigenous leader said, yes, we all know how vital water is, but where does modernizing water laws take us? Wouldn’t that take us in the wrong direction?

Miguel Palacin, the director of the Andean Coalition of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) and president of CONACAMI, explained where water fits in with the Andean world. Water exists in all three levels of the Andean world and represents the blood of the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and thus vital to life. He urged us to think of where does the water that comes in rivers to the cities come from? It starts in the mountains, where the farmers and indigenous people care it for. The defenders of the water are the peasants. Then the water passes through the mines, the cities with no trash pick-up system, and becomes so contaminated, it’s without life. 16 out of the 53 rivers flowing from the mountains to the Pacific are contaminated from mining.

The Women and Water forum in the afternoon was truly inspirational. It began with a group of musicians playing typical Andean music with lyrics about defending water. The whole audience was clapping, and everyone seemed to feel the energy of the fight for water and against its contamination. The harmonious voices cried out, “We will fight for what they’re trying to take from us”.

The women who spoke on defending water rights really blew away the audience with their energy and determination. The word that Marcelina Vargas Quispe – a small indigenously dressed woman who is the secretary for the Peasant Confederation of Peru (CCP) – kept repeating was their great “concern” over the state of the natural resources in our country. The UNICEF report on water and sanitation in 2004 describes how not having access to safe water and toilets affects women and girls disproportionately. The report describes how women and girls have to travel far to carry back water to their houses, risk violence against them by not having private toilets, and put themselves at further risk for disease by not having safe sanitation.

The women who spoke at the forum know the problems and sicknesses related to water through experience, without needing to read the UNICEF report on it. Quispe described how “the women are the people who fight to defend the water for our health and our lives.” Without water, their lives are without dignity and health, and for that their message hears loud and clear: “Enough with the contamination and privatization; the land is our body and the water is our blood.”

One woman said that 80% of the houses in El Augustino where she lives do not have water. They have done everything from marches to petitions trying to get the government to realize the situation and to be aware of the problem. Finally, Sedapal has provided potable water to her town on 2 days a week, and for that she is very thankful.

The sad reality however is that each day life in rural Peru is getting poorer and poorer, as mining companies contaminate their water sources, and private companies over-charge for water. The rivers are drying up, and women have to decide how to ration out the water between washing, food preparation, and their personal health and hygiene.

Article and photos by Chloë Waters