Peruvian Left Confronts Neoliberal Water Inequality

Peru’s leading leftist Presidential candidate, Verónika Mendoza, is railing against the country’s historic inequality in access to water. Between 7-8 Million Peruvians do not have regular access to drinking water. In Lima alone, 1.5 million of the poorest residents have no running water at all. Lack of public investment by neoliberal governments is to blame.

Mendoza joined a rally on March 6th on the streets of Lima, exclaiming, “You cannot privatize water. It is a human right and a public good that the state has to bring to all families,” adding, “it is unacceptable that in a country that has had sustained economic growth, we have thousands of families who do not have water, who do not have basic services. That is exactly what we want to change.”

Peru’s water system is still public, but a recent study by the CELAG research group shows that successive neoliberal governments have failed to invest in public infrastructure which would make water available to all.

Repeated attempts have been made to use poor distribution as an excuse to privatize water, the most recent being in 2019 when the Vizcarra government passed Presidential Decree 214-2019-EF that would have sold off the water company in the capital city, Lima. The move triggered mass mobilizations from worker’s unions to reject it.

In Lima’s perverse water distribution system, the richest pay far less for drinking water than the poor. A recent study by Oxfam has shown that the wealthiest districts of Lima have the best access to infrastructure to facilitate running water. Meanwhile, millions of the poorest residents, in slum-like settlements on the outskirts of the city, lack piping to provide tap water, most do not even have public sewage systems in their communities.

The cities’ working-class must instead take containers to fill when water tanker lorries visit the neighborhood. Those without infrastructure pay double for water compared to those who can access it in their homes.

There are often other difficulties associated with filling up personal tanks. Carrying water up hillside neighborhoods can be incredibly difficult, and residents are at greater risk of disease as they wash, cook and clean using often stagnant water, from tanks which require regular cleaning to avoid the growing of bacteria.

This dire situation is alarming, taking into account that Peru, prior to COVID-19, had been one of the fastest-growing economies in the region in recent years. Analysts say this is a wider problem of Peru’s economic growth being dependent on export prices rather than building the country’s industrial capacity and internal demand. It’s for this reason that over 70% of the country still works in the informal economy, a sector that only grows due to a lack of formal jobs.

In 2018, economist Nicolás Oliva forewarned that a brutal fall could follow years of neoliberal growth, saying, “Peru does not follow a different economic growth path from before, nor does it guarantee a program of development for its citizens. Short-term income has expanded without a plan for the future. Peruvian neoliberalism takes advantage of, and deepens, informal work relations and celebrates the growth of the ‘every man for himself mentality. So far it works, but for how long?”

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of Peru’s market-based growth concentrated only among a tiny handful of the very wealthy. During 2020, unemployment doubled and average wages fell by over 25%.

Verónika Mendoza, of the ‘Juntos por el Perú’ party hopes to transform this situation. Her proposals include the nationalization of the country’s natural gas and drawing up a new, plurinational constitution, to replace the old colonial republic and its Fujimori era constitution. Peru holds presidential elections on Sunday, April 11th, in a race which is expected to go to a second round.