One way or another, El Salvador is going to have to get a handle on its water supply. In the most water-stressed country in Central America, over 90% of the country’s surface water, from places like rivers and streams, is not considered safe for drinking. Census data shows that in 2011, some 28% of rural households reported having no direct access to a reliable, safe source of water. Of those households that do receive water from piped systems, municipal water providers report a 47% loss from leakages through malfunctioning and aging infrastructure.
Rivers and streams now exhibit the lowest flow rates on record since 2001, and forecasts into 2050 show little respite. Meanwhile, with projected population growth and land use change—El Salvador is already one of the most densely populated countries in the Americas—demand for clean water is likely to escalate by nearly 300% over that same period. El Salvador is currently experiencing an El Niño event, which is leading to 30% reductions below normal surface water supply in the coastal agricultural regions, and prolonging the arrival of much-needed precipitation. These conditions have become more and more common each year.
For the better part of the past decade, civil society groups have been coalescing around a proposal to ensure that all Salvadorans gain access to an available supply of clean, consistent water. Over 20 separate government agencies report purview over water, from its provision and permitted use to management and conservation. A General Water Law, proposed by the prior administration, attempts to establish order to this hodge-podge of intersecting mandates, and set clear rules to enforce water use and its sanitation.
Over three years after its submission, the General Water Law continues to stagnate in the legislature, held up by an ideological stalemate on the nature of water as a public, or private good. Should water be considered a commodity to be exploited economically, or an inalienable human right? And which of these approaches will ensure that the tens of thousands of Salvadorans currently without water gain access to clean, reliable sources of it?
During the past two decades, the human right to water has gained traction worldwide largely as a response to the more clumsy examples of wholesale privatization of the resource, like the debacle of the Cochabamba Water Wars in Bolivia. The rights framework provides the legal impetus for governments to ensure that all water users are allowed equal treatment, equal access, and systems of accountability. Rather than profess a singular, state-oriented solution to water provision, the human right to water establishes the principles for the legal framework that should emphasize the state’s role in enforcing and overseeing water access for all—no matter how service is delivered. It acknowledges the deficiencies in the trends toward water privatization, but does not prohibit a market-oriented approach.
In other words, critics of the human rights approach to water who contend that it restricts private sector participation are either being disingenuous, or are misinformed . The right to water simply reiterates what all actors in this debate have been saying from their respective ideological trenches all along; it is the government’s responsibility to oversee the provision of safe drinking water for all.
In water distribution and treatment, those households existing at the “last mile” of service are often left to fend for themselves, especially when governments rely on a purely market-based approach. This “last mile” often represents the most expensive aspects of water delivery, or supplying water to the margins of society least able to pay, where existing business models of private sector water delivery malfunction. It is here, at this “last mile” where the government of El Salvador should focus its attention, and craft a water law that enables access to clean, drinkable water in these areas, while establishing norms toward financial sustainability, efficiency, and dispute resolution.
Within the leadership vacuum generated by uncertainty around a General Water Law, water users themselves located at that “last mile” are taking matters into their own hands. In the Bay of Jiquilisco watershed, community groups have formed 65 distinct water committees that manage water systems and the surrounding aquifers where government resources are scarce . Organizations like EcoViva and Rotary International have had to muster the philanthropic resources to help local committees provide a standard of clean water to their communities. Earlier this year, the government acknowledged the legal status of these community water committees as model “non-government entities” to oversee water provision and administer revenues from use. It’s these kind of enterprises that should be promoted within El Salvador’s evolving water discussion, and allowed the authority to manage their own resources. This involves technical training, access to financing, and jurisdictional certainty around rural sources of water.
During the final Congressional session this week, legislators chose to punt on ratifying an amendment to declare access to water (and food) as a human right, despite pressure from civil society groups. This means that the debate on water as a human right, and the associated politics, will continue. This is probably little comfort for the tens of thousands of families who woke up today in search of clean water.