Last week a coalition of social organizations from the Alliance against the Privatization of Water in El Salvador presented a formal appeal to the legislature urging them to pass a water law to protect and manage this vital resource. The appeal was backed by FMLN legislators, including Congresswoman Estela Hernández of Usulután.
El Salvador has for years been experiencing a mounting water crisis. The Ministry of Environment reports that 88% of the country’s surface water is highly contaminated by untreated residential, industrial, and agricultural wastewater and runoff that pollute its rivers and lakes.
The prohibitive cost of treating surface water means that Salvadorans rely heavily on underground aquifers for drinking water. These “are being drained faster than they are being replenished.… Water runs off instead of soaking into the ground because of deforestation, intensive agriculture in sugar cane zones, and because of increased pavement [that] comes with growing urbanization,” writes Tim Muth on El Salvador Perspectives.
Despite the desperate need for a comprehensive and coherent water law, the current approach to water management is a hodgepodge of regulations and jurisdictions. 2,325 community-managed water systems provide water to the 53% of the population that is not served by the public water agency ANDA. The regulatory vacuum exacerbates an already precarious situation and opens the door for abuse by large agricultural producers and other corporate interests.
It’s against this backdrop that the latest legislative battle over water is unfolding. Alliance members and supporters of the General Water Law, which has languished in committee for the last 11 years, are calling on the legislature to pass the bill – and quickly. Amid this pressure, ARENA and other conservative parties put forward their own proposal in July, the Integral Water Law. The current debate centers on the makeup of the regulatory body that would direct water policy in El Salvador.
Under the Integral Water Law, the main regulatory body would consist of a five-member board of directors: a president appointed by the President of El Salvador; two directors elected by COMURES, the association of mayors and municipalities of El Salvador; and two directors elected by ANEP, the National Association of Private Enterprise, a consortium representing the country’s major industries.
Civil society actors fear this composition would effectively put decision-making power in the hands of the private sector. “They talk about agility, fewer personnel, efficiency. But it’s evident that behind this proposal there is a clear effort by private enterprise to control water policy,” writes José María Tojeira, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America in El Salvador and a proponent of the General Water Law. “If COMURES named, as would be logical, a representative from each majority party [FMLN and ARENA], private enterprise, which is so close to ARENA, would effectively have three representatives in the governing institution, and with this control of policy.”
By contrast, the General Water Law would put decision-making power in the hands of technical experts from various government agencies, with major input from resource users and stakeholders from an array of sectors. The main regulatory entity, the National Water Authority (ANA), would be made up of representatives from the ministries of environment, agriculture, economy, health, and others, as well as the watershed agencies, the hydroelectric authority CEL, the current water agency ANDA, and COMURES. Assisting the ANA would be the National Water Council (CNA), a 13-member council with binding authority made up of representatives from watershed and local-level water committees, the private sector, social movements, environmental organizations, academia, churches, and other organizations.
Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. Experiences in places like Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador show that profit-driven companies can’t and won’t protect this sacred right, and that poor policy only worsens water scarcity. “Private industry, whose leaders don’t suffer water or sanitation problems, is more interested in the productive and profitable management of water than in ensuring a universal, high-quality service not driven by profit,” writes Tojeira.
Members of the Alliance against the Privatization of Water in El Salvador want a law that enshrines the human right to water and establishes mechanisms for everyday resource users to participate and have their interests represented in decision-making around water.
They also want a law that promotes the long-term conservation of this precious resource. David Marroquín of the Mangrove Association told me that “the human right to water for us means having access to high-quality water for humans and for the biodiversity in our region. With the backing of the General Water Law we want to recover our surface waters and replenish our aquifers” through reforestation campaigns and other actions that the government, private sector, and general population can take on together.
El Salvador’s social movements showed their might when they succeeded in banning mining in March of this year. As our partners in El Salvador and their allies advocate for better water policy, we will follow their progress and continue to lend support to community-led efforts to protect water, the environment, and people.
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