Clean, reliable water flowing from the tap or kitchen sink is a luxury that many in El Salvador do not enjoy. Over 20% of all Salvadorans, or roughly 1.5 million people, do not have direct access to water in their households for drinking or bathing. Rural areas suffer disproportionally, with 60% of households that subsist amidst a heavily developed agriculture landscape relying primarily upon surface water for drinking. This surface water is highly contaminated with heavy metals, chemical pollutants from agricultural runoff, and human waste in untreated sewage discharge. Nearly two thirds of the country’s water supply comes from surface sources such as streams, rivers and lakes. Over 90% of these sources are severely contaminated, and considered undrinkable by U.S. standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In addressing this crisis, government officials, legislators and civil society have been making slow but steady progress on a water policy for El Salvador, an effort nearly 7 years in the making. In March 2012, after six years of pressure from a consortium of civil society groups and non-government organizations, the Ministry of the Environment proposed a General Water Law, with the explicit purpose of ensuring that every single Salvadoran enjoys the basic human right to clean, plentiful water. This law, if passed, would provide order to the nearly 25 government agencies that each deal with water resources. It would also establish a National Water Council, which alongside the Ministry of the Environment and others, is tasked with regulating consumption and oversee water treatment and pollution standards.
Exactly a year after this proposal was presented, and today to commemorate World Water Day, the General Water Law still faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Even after a broad-based, nationwide consultation process in 2012, the law faces pressure from industry groups who consider the privatization of El Salvador’s water resources a viable alternative to public management under the current National Water Council. These same interests contend that the “polluter pays” principle enshrined in the law, a common practice in punishing dirty operations with direct fines for polluting water sources, is unjust. Instead, many in the industry in El Salvador would rather be allowed to “grandfather in” current operations at factories that discharge waste into water sources, and be provided incentives to modernize water treatment capabilities.
Water is considered a public good, and should be managed as such for the interest of all. From a purely economic perspective, the “polluter pays” principle offers the most direct way to ensure that business pays for externalities, or the costs it forces on others. In this case, that cost is a contaminated water supply, borne by all Salvadorans, and often the poorest who rely on contaminated surface water for survival. Instead of supporting market-distorting subsidies that reward bad actors and free-riders, it is in the industry’s best interest overall to support a more efficient “polluter pays” scheme.
Likewise, until the industry can prove a positive track record in an improvement in service delivery through privatization, it is unlikely to be a viable alternative to public management of water as a public good. Privatization of water provision throughout the world has been marked with higher prices for users, and often few service improvements, while simultaneously complicating users’ rights to equitable access. It is highly unlikely that privatization in El Salvador would be any different.
In commemorating World Water Day, it is important to remember that we all have a responsibility to take care of finite water resources. In the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco, community leadership is working across 14 municipal areas to improve watershed management adjacent to El Salvador’s largest Wetland of International Importance. They are collaborating with local water boards to improve their administration and management of rural water systems, as well as provide solutions to rampant deforestation that exacerbates flooding damage and the spread of pollutants into surface water. Together with Engineers without Borders, EcoViva and the Mangrove Association are helping improve rural water systems that provide a clean, reliable source of water to over 500 families.
A responsible approach to integrated water management is required if El Salvador hopes to ensure clean water for all of its citizens, and local organizations like the Mangrove Association are taking the lead in highly vulnerable rural areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. EcoViva supports the passage of a General Water Law that enables these efforts, by institutionalizing innovative efforts like those pioneered in the Bay of Jiquilisco which brings water users together to care for important water resources.
UPDATE: (April 16, 2013). This week, the Environment and Climate Change Commission were unable to meet, due to a lack of a quorum, requiring that a majority of participating representatives be present within 15 minutes of the start of the session. This lack of quorum was due to the absence of participating ARENA, PCN and an independent representatives, all of which are on the record as opposing the proposed General Water Law. The Commission was to discuss articles 70 and 71, which pertain to permit approval processes and penalizing polluters. The Minister and Vice Minister of the Environment were also slated to testify on these topics, and were asked to postpone their testimony for a later date.