Envío Digital
 

Revista Envío
Edificio Nitlapán,
2do. piso
Universidad Centroamericana
UCA

Apartado A-194
Managua, Nicaragua

Telephone:
(505) 22782557

Fax:
(505) 22781402

Email:
info@envio.org.ni

Central American University - UCA  
  Number 435 | Octubre 2017
Home Contact us Archive Suscriptions

Anuncio

El Salvador

Water for everyone: A struggle for life

The recently approved Law to Prohibit Metal Mining is one of the most important grassroots victories of our times. For all those who have been struggling for the past eight years to prevent water privatization policies from being pushing through, a law as clear as this one is also essential to their efforts to defend water. María Barahona, from Tecoluca, succinctly states what the people want: “We don’t want water privatized or sugarcane plantations near water springs. We don’t want water to be expensive and we don’t want it to be scarce. We want all Salvadorans to have water in all our communities.”

Elaine Freedman

In 1576, Spanish chronicler Juan López de Velasco wrote this about the Río Acelhuate, whose basin contains San Salvador, the capital: “It is said that on the outskirts of the city, there are three very big hot springs, very good and clear and without any bad taste, and upon drawing the water, it can be cooled and drunk; at its source it is rather warm and although one may suffer, it cools down as it flows. I believe there is no better place in the world available for bathing than these springs.”

Today, the Acelhuate river is emblematic of the country’s fluvial contamination, which is the rule and not the exception. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) classified Salvadoran rivers according to the quality of their water. None had excellent quality, and it was only good In 12%, average in 50%, bad in 31% and awful in 7%.

On the verge of a crisis since 2016


Due to its geographical position, Central America has a great wealth of both superficial and subterranean water. El Salvador gets an average annual rainfall accumulation of 1,780 milliliters, similar to Japan, 30% greater than Cuba, 40% greater than the UK, 2.5 times Germany’s rainfall and 34 times that of Egypt.

Nelson Cuellar of the Salvadoran Research Program on Development and Environment (PRISMA) has said that “if all the rain that falls during the rainy season within El Salvador’s territory could be collected it would reach about 1.80 meters high.”

The country has 360 rivers, within 10 basins or catchments. It also has 4 natural lakes and 4 artificial reservoirs for generating hydroelectricity.Despite these valuable resources, the country was already on the brink of an ecological crisis back in 2006 due to an environmental debt centered on the water problem. MARN had only existed for eight years at that time, and had become more popular with private businesses than with the general population or environmental movements. That same year, In its Human Development Report titled “Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis” the United Nations Development Programme warned that unless immediarte comprehensive measures were decided upon, El Salvador would “face water shortages in about 15 years.”

Those measures were not taken and the same forecast was repeated seven years later in a 2013 study conducted by the Human Rights Defense Office (PDDH), which highlighted the progressive decrease in water tables and underground water and the deterioration of catchments, above all during the yearly dry seasons and especially in the northern part of the country. David Morales, at that time head of the PDDH, warned that “according to a scientific analysis by international organizations and analyzed in this study, if we continue with this logic of deterioration and degradation of water sources, life will be unviable in El Salvador in 80 years.”

Then two years ago there was a serious reduction in the levels of the rivers. MARN reported that the Río Torola’s water level dropped by 95%, that of the Grande de San Miguel by 70%, of the Goascarán by 95% and of the rivers in the western and northern zones by between 60% and 87%.

Deforestation is a colonial legacy


The same Spanish conquerors who praised El Salvador’s natural resources were the ones who began their destruction. The felling of forests was needed to launch mining, expand cattle-raising and promote large plantation farming, all activities that were the pillars of the colonial economy. The development of the agro-export model with monocrops of indigo, cotton and later sugar advanced the deforestation. Coffee monoculture is the only one that didn’t involve indiscriminate deforestation.

Although extensive agriculture and cattle-raising are still the main motivations for deforestation, the big construction companies in the Salvadoran Chamber of Construction (CASALCO) and the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) have been added to the list of large deforesters since the end of last century. The construction of residential zones in forested areas has become a habitual practice of these companies. The clearest example is the urbanization of the Finca El Espino, whose vast coffee plantation and natural reserve dated back to the mid-19th century; it was known as the “lung of San Salvador” as it permitted the infiltration of 2 million cubic meters of water and its forests helped filter 57 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Polluted waters


Today, El Salvador is second only to Haiti as the most deforested country in Latin America. MARN reports that more than 80% of Salvadoran territory is deforested and the country’s scarce vegetation cover is barely 1.1% of Central America’s forest mass. We all know that destroying forests causes all kinds of damages, one of the most immediate being the loss of the capacity to produce water because deforested areas cause rainwater to run off rather than infiltrate, thus decreasing the water tables. And this only aggravates the crisis, because it is followed by increased temperatures, and reduced evaporation and transpiration of water into the atmosphere, which currently represents 59% of the precipitation.

The introduction of the use of chemicals in agriculture in the early 20th century, and their heaviest use during the 1950s greatly contributed to water contamination and is still a main contaminating factor today. Even though all monocrops and the great majority of subsistence agriculture in El Salvador were developed using agrochemicals, cotton was the most damaging due to the high concentrations of pesticides required and their application by airplane.

Another source of contamination is industrial waste water. Samples from a thousand large factories (meat, fish, sugar refineries, coffee processing plants and textile mills) showed that only 25% treat their waste water. According to MARN, five companies with rudimentary and inefficient processes and technologies contaminate 7% of the Acelhaute river, which The Washington Post in 1999 already called “Salvador’s River of Poison,” describing it as “a cesspool fouled by 1,600 tons of raw sewage a day, ceaseless flows of untreated industrial waste and heaps of trash dumped into its murky gray waters.”

As that article indicates, lack of urban planning and the population concentration in San Salvador’s metropolitan area also worsens the water contamination, not only through raw sewage but also the large amounts of solid waste produced in urban centers that generally lack adequate treatment and final disposal processes and methods. This is seen not only in the capital but all around the country.

In the completion of the circle of cause and effect, climate change is another factor that has contributed to reducing water levels in rivers, provoking a series of socio-natural disasters in record time: hurricane Ida (2009), Matthew (2010), storm E12 (2011) and three consecutive years of drought (2012-2015). Each disaster left its mark on the country’s hydrography and its people’s lives. In 2012 the government launched the First National Climate Change Strategy, acknowledging that the country lacks institutional mechanisms to respond to recurrent losses and prioritizing three lines of action: short-term investments to reduce damage and losses; the generation of retention mechanisms and risk transference; and the preparation for international negotiations regarding damages and losses due to climate change.

Very unequal access to water


In 2010, the UNDP put El Salvador in third place for unequal access to water in Latin America and the Caribbean. Data from the government’s 2013 Multi-Purpose Household Survey show that one in five people live in homes without access to piped water. UNICEF calculates that this affects some 599,000 children and adolescents. While that figure represents 27% of the nation’s children, it’s up to 37% among the poorest families. The figures of the Alliance for the Defense of Rural Women’s Rights are similar, reporting that 23.5% of Salvadoran homes nationally lack access to drinking water, but offer a clear picture of the unequal access between the city and the countryside. In the urban areas, 14.4% lack access to piped water whereas two out of five families in the rural areas are without it.

Having pipes doesn’t equal assured water either in the countryside or in the city. Few Salvadoran families have water 24 hours a day. Although 91% of San Salvador’s metropolitan area has water pipes, water supply is irregular and cuts can last from hours to weeks, sometimes due to service plans and others to damage in the pipes or to repairs.

Even though the country has achieved the first part of goal 7C of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which refers to access to water, and is on its way to reaching the one related to improved sanitation, much still needs to be done to fully guarantee access to water. Those most affected are women and children in rural areas and marginal urban areas. The gender gap is palpable with respect to access to water, especially in rural areas. According to the FAO, approximately 70% of rural women don’t have access to a direct water supply: “being responsible for its provision, they frequently have to travel great distances to reach a water source.”

Good fishing for businessmen in these troubled waters


The greatest gap between the demand for and supply of water is seen between the agriculture and livestock businesses, agro-industries and other industries on the one hand and the general population on the other. MARN’s study shows that the country’s demand for water, which amounts to a little over 1.884 billion cubic meters per year, is unequally distributed: 50.5% of available water is used for agriculture, 30.6% for households, 13.2% for energy, 3.7% for industry, 2.7% for aquatic purposes and 0.03% for tourism.

Within the agricultural sector, not all who are dedicated to these tasks have equal access to water. The sugar production and cattle-raising sectors united in the Chamber of Agriculture (CAMAGRO) rule. The Water Forum, a group of community and environmental organizations, points out that the average consumption of water for sugar cane irrigation is over 205 million cubic meters for an area of over 36,000 hectares in the coastal zone. A large percentage of that irrigation comes from the zone’s shallow aquifers. The rest is from surface waters, often without authorization. Other times they do have authorization... which while legal is illegitimate. One example is Central Izalco, property owned by the Regalado family in the western part of the country. This family pays only US$113 a year for unlimited use of water. The people of the area, many of whom pay $10 a month for the water they consume in their homes, consider this authorization a joke. Of the 7,000 sugar producers in the country, two families—the Regalado family and the Wright family—control 70% of the internal market and the preferential export market to the US and are thus the main beneficiaries of the lack of regulations over the use of water.

Water is big business


Something similar happens with the industrial sector. Not all industries use a disproportionate amount of water for the production processes that allow them to accumulate their wealth. Those that use the most are the bottling industries, construction and the extractive industries.

The bottling companies represent the most flagrant cases. The South African brewery SABMiller, which owns La Constancia Industries, the country’s main soda and beer producer, and is also the national and regional Coca-Cola distributor, has hogged the bottled water market with its brand, Agua Cristal; it is in first place in the use and abuse of water to generate profits. Since 1999, this company has been extracting water from the Nejapa aquifer with two wells that currently extract 34.67 million cubic meters a year. At that rate this water source will be dry in 30 years.

In 2013, this transnational company requested to expand its plant with the drilling of a third well. The request, which would imply moving its installations in San Salvador to the municipality of Nejapa, was an affront to the people of that municipality, only 50.2% of whom have access to household water. Thanks to their years of struggle since then, the government has taken its time with the company’s request, and the case is still open.

In this context, SABMiller announced in March of last year that “given the mounting insecurity affecting the communities around La Tiendona market, and wanting to guarantee the physical integrity of our collaborators and contractors, we find ourselves forced to temporarily suspend the Agua Cristal operations.” It’s not a very convincing argument for suspending the sale of Agua Cristal, as they still distribute Coca-Cola and beer in that area. Weren’t those workers exposed to the same unsafe risks? There are records of Agua Cristal distribution workers reporting that they weren’t paid the minimum wage or given access to social benefits, which reveals how little concern the company actually has for their safety. Seeing all this, the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES) suspected that the closing was “a measure to pressure the government to authorize the move of La Constancia’s water production plant to Nejapa despite everything.” UNES went public with this idea, asking the government “not to allow itself to be pressured by La Constancia Industries’ maneuver,” and demanding that the company “abandon its role of victim, seeing as it is in a dominant position from all points of view.”

Urban developers have a lot of responsibility


Urban developers and construction firms also commit abuses. In municipalities like San José Villanueva and Zaragoza in La Libertad, 75% of the population has difficulties accessing drinking water. At the same time, according to the Water Forum, high-ticket residential areas such as La Hacienda, Los Sueños and El Encanto Villas and Golf are granted unrestricted water services. In fact, they even receive enough water to keep the golf course nice and green.

The extraction of stone materials from rivers and recharge zones affects the natural riverbeds and the quantity and quality of the water sources, and also generates an imbalance in the fauna and flora of these ecosystems that threatens the populations located downriver. The clearest example is the Río Jiboa, from which several companies extract sand, gravel and rocks for building materials. CESSA, the country’s main cement plant, which is owned by the Swiss transnational Lafarge Holcim, stands out the most among these companies.

The recently approved Law to Prohibit Metal Mining, which bans all metal mining exploration and exploitation, is a huge relief for the people with respect to access to water. In just one mine, El Dorado in Cabañas, the Pacifica Rim company had plans to use almost 900,000 liters of water a day, the same amount needed to supply an average family for 20 years. To this abuse must be added the use of cyanide in the extraction of gold, which would have contaminated the Lempa river, leaving it totally unusable for the duration of the mining operations and for at least 10 years afterward.

This smells like privatization


The imbalance in access to water smells like privatization. Although water is one of the few public goods that wasn’t sold off during the 1989-2008 flurry of privatizations, the unfair and scandalous permits and covert concessions at the time were embryonic forms of privatization because they operate by the same logic: the State hands over a public good to those who buy it and turn it into “their property.”

In 2003, then-Human Rights Ombudsperson Beatrice de Carrillo stated: “I want to warn everyone that with the so-called intention of improving water distribution services, dangerous service provision modalities are being promoted that could lead to the privatization of this service.”

Bolivia’s water war


In the international struggle against neoliberalism and for access to water as a common good, 2006 was an emblematic year. In Bolivia the people of Cochabamba won a victory by stopping the privatization of water, after six years of bloody struggle. The price of repealing the law that favored privatization and forcing both the transnational Aguas del Tunari to leave the country and the corrupt governor to resign was 1 person dead and 170 wounded under martial law. The consortium later sued the Bolivian government to recover its investments, but eventually had to withdraw the legal action. In that “water war” Bolivians taught all the people of Latin America and the rest of the world that it was possible to beat a neoliberal project.

The Water Forum is born


That same year, 2006, a number of El Salvador’s community and environmental organizations joined together in what
they called the Water Forum to seek fundamental changes in the issue of water. The UNDP report had recently come out revealing the main ecological knot around the water problem—unjust management favoring the interests of the wealthiest—and the Water Forum responded by demanding “responsible, efficient, equal and participatory water management and avoidance of its privatization.”

Even though El Salvador had almost 30 legal regulations related to water management and 6 State institutions—ministries, autonomous entities and municipalities—dedicated to this task back then, none could resolve the demands to regulate and guarantee access to water. So in March of that year the Water Forum presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly that would ban privatization, prioritize human consumption and establish controlling entities with both state and citizen participation.

El Salvador has more than 2,000 rural water boards, local entities that manage their community’s water. The law would have grantd them representation. Carolina Amaya, ecologist and a member of UNES, recalls: “We knew the conditions didn’t exist for approval of the law at that time, but we wanted to generate debate and social mobilization around the issue because the Right was intensifying it efforts to privatize water.” And indeed it was.

A mini water war in Suchitoto


The following year, President Antonio Saca, who also headed the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, inaugurated a water project in the municipality of Suchitoto, supposedly to kick off a new policy decentralizing public water service.

Suchitoto’s community organizations, many of them Forum members, organized a citizens’ debate in the central park to mobilize people. Definining access to water as an indispensable human right that cannot be ommercialized encouraged other social organizations to join the protest. All understood the government’s act as merely symbolic, premonitory of the privatization of one of the few basic services that still was a public good.

That day we witnessed the most brutal repression in the country so far in this century, with 14 detained, 62 wounded and two entire communities intervened by the armed forces. Shortly after that more people were detained for struggling for water in the western town of Tacuba, where the population of the canton of La Puerta confronted the ARENA mayor for control over water in their community.

The right to water almost makes it into the Constitution


Even though the water bill was buried under other issues, the Water Forum, along with other organizations, started a struggle to include the right to water and food in the Constitution.

A reform to article 69 of the Constitution was unanimously approved during the last session of the retiring Assembly in 2012. it read that “water is an essential resource for life, therefore it is the obligation of the State to use and preserve water resources and obtain its access for all inhabitants.” All that remained was for the constitutional reform to be ratified by the incoming Assembly. But three years went by and this didn’t happen. Although the FMLN and GANA benches backed the reform, the legislators from ARENA, the National Coalition Party (PCN) and and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) denied their votes over and over again.

David Morales, the Human Rights Ombudsperson at the time, offered this interpretation: “There are transnational companies with economic interests here that pressure, so the human right to water doesn’t get approved in the legislative plenary.”

The Right also fights for the water


The Right has used several arguments to oppose grassroots proposals around water. They’ve called it a “confiscation of private property” and said it “would increase bureaucracy in the issuing of permits, which would limit investments,” “would mean more taxes for everyone,” “seeks to regulate a false water scarcity” and “affects consumption by rural communities.”

By late 2013, a new bill appeared in the Legislative Assembly, this one signed by the Irrigation Association, proposing a Water Authority composed of seven people, five from the private sector and two from the State. The intention was clear: to commercialize water. FMLN congresswoman Estela Hernandez, a member of the Environmental and Climate Change Commission, recalls that “when we called the Association leaders to ask them to explain their proposal, they knew nothing about its contents and disassociated themselves from the bill. ARENA and PCN congresspeople, whose signatures were on the bill, simply said they had signed it because “it was brought to them.”

Several months later, another bill—a virtual photocopy of the one by the Irrigation Association—was unveiled in the National Meeting of Private Enterprise (ENADE), ANEP’s maximum forum. The high rollers in ENADE are business groups such as CAMAGRO, CASALCO and the Salvadoran Association of Water Bottling Industries (ASIAGUA), all of which have a lot to gain from minimal regulation of water use and promote its privatization. Although their bill made the headlines of national newspapers, it never got as far as the Legislative Assembly.

The people keep struggling


The communities and organizations in the Water Forum have struggled against La Constancia, the Wright and Regalado families, the El Roble construction firm and other companies because they feel “their water’s been stolen,” and they’ve won some of their struggles. One example is the lawsuit won by organized communities in the Micro Watershed Committee and the Istatén Association against the sugarcane producers for the overexploitation of the Río Paz, on the border between El Salvador and Guatemala. These same people have begun to recover five kilometers of the Río Aguacate in the municipality of San Francisco Menéndez, Ahuachapan. Although they haven’t made newspaper headlines, these are important struggles.

In 2016, the press was full of news about the struggle of hundreds of citizens who protested in different places within the San Salvador metropolitan area, closing off the streets of the capital and of highways including the one to the international airport. They were all demanding water.

What were the similarities and differences between this struggle in the capital and those in the rural areas? Both were collective actions demanding water for human consumption and legitimate people’s expressions of a basic need. The difference was that the Ahuachapan communities were suing the sugarcane producers and cattle-raisers, those from Nejapa were opposing La Constancia and Coca-Cola
and those from La Libertad were fighting construction companies, while the urban communities were making their demands against the State and were asking for the presence of the president of the National Administration of Water and Sewer (ANDA) to negotiate with him.

Orange alert in San Salvador


These demands last year echoed one of the Right’s main slogans against today’s government: “The FMLN government is incapable.” The fact that this fed the media’s anti-government agenda is what made these claims so newsworthy.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén responded by declaring an orange alert, a national emergency in San Salvador’s metropolitan area. He explained that by doing so, ANDA’s president could ask for some US$3.5 million to improve the water supply to more than 2.5 million people who live in San Salvador. The director of Civil Protection, Jorge Meléndez, specified that, by law, the orange alert empowers the central government institutions, other state branches and municipal governments to “redirect their budgets to deal with the emergency.”

During the 90 days the emergency was in effect, nearly 45,000 cubic meters of drinking water were delivered to sectors facing a shortage, 48 storage tanks were filled daily and short-term work such as drilling a 270-meter deep well in the municipality of Apopa and installing 12-inch-diameter steel pipes got underway. The second phase of a pumping system was also started with the introduction of suction pipes and the construction of a cistern, a pump house and an electrical substation. The recovery of the Acelhuate river, an urgent long term-project, was also launched.

With these measures, the government demonstrated that it had the capacity to face the water crisis. It also made it clear that this problem could be solved with the approval of a General Water Law. President Sánchez Cerén took advantage the celebration of his second year in office to again ask the Legislative Assembly to approve that bill.

The water oligarchy’s mask is off


This June, the rightwing parties (ARENA, PCN, GANA and PCD) formally presented their own bill, the one revolving around the creation of an autonomous institution directed by two public sector and three private sector members. Congresswoman Estela Hernández stressed that “for the first time the Right’s proposal speaks openly about the participation of CAMAGRO and ASI [the Salvadoran Industry Association].” In representation of the “water oligarchy,” the Right was finally taking its mask off and showing its interest in privatization.
Not so curiously, the two spokespeople from those parties on the Environmental and Climate Change Commission were Johnny Wright, whose family dominates the sugar production and processing, and Mario Ponce, the vox populi for the interests of transnational companies linked to the commercialization of water. Both argued that their bill is based on a project previously agreed on with ANEP and MARN. MARN immediately disassociated itself from the bill, denying that it expressed its proposals for managing water in the country.

The Water Forum promptly joined a broad alliance with other social organizations that called itself the Alliance against Water Privatization. Supported by the Catholic Church and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they conducted protests in San Salvador’s streets and in front of the Legislative Assembly and its departmental offices throughout the country.

A privatizing proposal


The Alliance underscored three aspects of the Right’s bill that reveal its privatizing nature: “1. It proposes an autonomous Governing Entity whose board is mostly made up of ANEP and COMURES [the Corporation of Municipalities of the Republic of El Salvador, controlled by the parties from the Right], with authority to decide any aspect related to water, such as permits, use taxes, personnel of the governing entity, rules for potable water, etc., showing a clear conflict of interests with the largest users of water by trying to play both judge and jury. 2. It eliminates the formation of committees and watershed management and therefore effective participation by the people. 3. It prioritizes companies’ commercial use over the human right to water for the people supplied by the water boards and generates conditions for the privatization of potable water services.”

Faced with this grassroots reaction, ARENA distanced itself from its bill, leaving it with one lonely defender: Mario Ponce, from the PCN.

The proposal by the UCA and the Catholic Church


In this quandary the “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University (UCA) came up with a proposal that received the backing of the Catholic Church. The archbishop of San Salvador, José Escobar Alas, presented it with these words: “This proposal specifies how a governing entity should act, being predominately from the State but with non-State participation and also with an advisory arena of broad citizen participation and with local organizational structures that include the water boards.”

It’s not closed to the participation of big companies, which can always accede to positions within the leadership of a water governing entity, but their participation would not be majority and wouldn’t totally replace the participation of the water boards. Congresswoman Hernández called the UCA-Church proposal “intermediate,” something that could solve the current impasse around such a vital issue.

“We want water in all communities”


To have a forceful law for the defense of water is essential for the sectors that are celebrating their successes over the last eight years in closing the door to typically neoliberal water privatizing policies. They won’t be totally satisfied until there’s a law as clear as the Law Banning Metal Mining, which is one of the most important grassroots victories of these years.

María Barahona, from Tecoluca, San Vicente, and a participant in the Alliance against Water Privatization mobilizations, summed up the grassroots demands well: “We Salvadorans don’t want water privatized. We don’t want sugarcane plantations near water springs. We don’t want expensive or scarce water. All we want is water in all our communities.”

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envoi correspondent in El Salvador.
In 1576, Spanish chronicler Juan López de Velasco wrote this about the Río Acelhuate, whose basin contains San Salvador, the capital: “It is said that on the outskirts of the city, there are three very big hot springs, very good and clear and without any bad taste, and upon drawing the water, it can be cooled and drunk; at its source it is rather warm and although one may suffer, it cools down as it flows. I believe there is no better place in the world available for bathing than these springs.”

Today, the Acelhuate river is emblematic of the country’s fluvial contamination, which is the rule and not the exception. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) classified Salvadoran rivers according to the quality of their water. None had excellent quality, and it was only good In 12%, average in 50%, bad in 31% and awful in 7%.

On the verge of a crisis since 2016


Due to its geographical position, Central America has a great wealth of both superficial and subterranean water. El Salvador gets an average annual rainfall accumulation of 1,780 milliliters, similar to Japan, 30% greater than Cuba, 40% greater than the UK, 2.5 times Germany’s rainfall and 34 times that of Egypt.

Nelson Cuellar of the Salvadoran Research Program on Development and Environment (PRISMA) has said that “if all the rain that falls during the rainy season within El Salvador’s territory could be collected it would reach about 1.80 meters high.”

The country has 360 rivers, within 10 basins or catchments. It also has 4 natural lakes and 4 artificial reservoirs for generating hydroelectricity.Despite these valuable resources, the country was already on the brink of an ecological crisis back in 2006 due to an environmental debt centered on the water problem. MARN had only existed for eight years at that time, and had become more popular with private businesses than with the general population or environmental movements. That same year, In its Human Development Report titled “Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis” the United Nations Development Programme warned that unless immediarte comprehensive measures were decided upon, El Salvador would “face water shortages in about 15 years.”

Those measures were not taken and the same forecast was repeated seven years later in a 2013 study conducted by the Human Rights Defense Office (PDDH), which highlighted the progressive decrease in water tables and underground water and the deterioration of catchments, above all during the yearly dry seasons and especially in the northern part of the country. David Morales, at that time head of the PDDH, warned that “according to a scientific analysis by international organizations and analyzed in this study, if we continue with this logic of deterioration and degradation of water sources, life will be unviable in El Salvador in 80 years.”

Then two years ago there was a serious reduction in the levels of the rivers. MARN reported that the Río Torola’s water level dropped by 95%, that of the Grande de San Miguel by 70%, of the Goascarán by 95% and of the rivers in the western and northern zones by between 60% and 87%.

Deforestation is a colonial legacy


The same Spanish conquerors who praised El Salvador’s natural resources were the ones who began their destruction. The felling of forests was needed to launch mining, expand cattle-raising and promote large plantation farming, all activities that were the pillars of the colonial economy. The development of the agro-export model with monocrops of indigo, cotton and later sugar advanced the deforestation. Coffee monoculture is the only one that didn’t involve indiscriminate deforestation.

Although extensive agriculture and cattle-raising are still the main motivations for deforestation, the big construction companies in the Salvadoran Chamber of Construction (CASALCO) and the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) have been added to the list of large deforesters since the end of last century. The construction of residential zones in forested areas has become a habitual practice of these companies. The clearest example is the urbanization of the Finca El Espino, whose vast coffee plantation and natural reserve dated back to the mid-19th century; it was known as the “lung of San Salvador” as it permitted the infiltration of 2 million cubic meters of water and its forests helped filter 57 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Polluted waters


Today, El Salvador is second only to Haiti as the most deforested country in Latin America. MARN reports that more than 80% of Salvadoran territory is deforested and the country’s scarce vegetation cover is barely 1.1% of Central America’s forest mass. We all know that destroying forests causes all kinds of damages, one of the most immediate being the loss of the capacity to produce water because deforested areas cause rainwater to run off rather than infiltrate, thus decreasing the water tables. And this only aggravates the crisis, because it is followed by increased temperatures, and reduced evaporation and transpiration of water into the atmosphere, which currently represents 59% of the precipitation.

The introduction of the use of chemicals in agriculture in the early 20th century, and their heaviest use during the 1950s greatly contributed to water contamination and is still a main contaminating factor today. Even though all monocrops and the great majority of subsistence agriculture in El Salvador were developed using agrochemicals, cotton was the most damaging due to the high concentrations of pesticides required and their application by airplane.

Another source of contamination is industrial waste water. Samples from a thousand large factories (meat, fish, sugar refineries, coffee processing plants and textile mills) showed that only 25% treat their waste water. According to MARN, five companies with rudimentary and inefficient processes and technologies contaminate 7% of the Acelhaute river, which The Washington Post in 1999 already called “Salvador’s River of Poison,” describing it as “a cesspool fouled by 1,600 tons of raw sewage a day, ceaseless flows of untreated industrial waste and heaps of trash dumped into its murky gray waters.”

As that article indicates, lack of urban planning and the population concentration in San Salvador’s metropolitan area also worsens the water contamination, not only through raw sewage but also the large amounts of solid waste produced in urban centers that generally lack adequate treatment and final disposal processes and methods. This is seen not only in the capital but all around the country.

In the completion of the circle of cause and effect, climate change is another factor that has contributed to reducing water levels in rivers, provoking a series of socio-natural disasters in record time: hurricane Ida (2009), Matthew (2010), storm E12 (2011) and three consecutive years of drought (2012-2015). Each disaster left its mark on the country’s hydrography and its people’s lives. In 2012 the government launched the First National Climate Change Strategy, acknowledging that the country lacks institutional mechanisms to respond to recurrent losses and prioritizing three lines of action: short-term investments to reduce damage and losses; the generation of retention mechanisms and risk transference; and the preparation for international negotiations regarding damages and losses due to climate change.

Very unequal access to water


In 2010, the UNDP put El Salvador in third place for unequal access to water in Latin America and the Caribbean. Data from the government’s 2013 Multi-Purpose Household Survey show that one in five people live in homes without access to piped water. UNICEF calculates that this affects some 599,000 children and adolescents. While that figure represents 27% of the nation’s children, it’s up to 37% among the poorest families. The figures of the Alliance for the Defense of Rural Women’s Rights are similar, reporting that 23.5% of Salvadoran homes nationally lack access to drinking water, but offer a clear picture of the unequal access between the city and the countryside. In the urban areas, 14.4% lack access to piped water whereas two out of five families in the rural areas are without it.

Having pipes doesn’t equal assured water either in the countryside or in the city. Few Salvadoran families have water 24 hours a day. Although 91% of San Salvador’s metropolitan area has water pipes, water supply is irregular and cuts can last from hours to weeks, sometimes due to service plans and others to damage in the pipes or to repairs.

Even though the country has achieved the first part of goal 7C of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which refers to access to water, and is on its way to reaching the one related to improved sanitation, much still needs to be done to fully guarantee access to water. Those most affected are women and children in rural areas and marginal urban areas. The gender gap is palpable with respect to access to water, especially in rural areas. According to the FAO, approximately 70% of rural women don’t have access to a direct water supply: “being responsible for its provision, they frequently have to travel great distances to reach a water source.”

Good fishing for businessmen in these troubled waters


The greatest gap between the demand for and supply of water is seen between the agriculture and livestock businesses, agro-industries and other industries on the one hand and the general population on the other. MARN’s study shows that the country’s demand for water, which amounts to a little over 1.884 billion cubic meters per year, is unequally distributed: 50.5% of available water is used for agriculture, 30.6% for households, 13.2% for energy, 3.7% for industry, 2.7% for aquatic purposes and 0.03% for tourism.

Within the agricultural sector, not all who are dedicated to these tasks have equal access to water. The sugar production and cattle-raising sectors united in the Chamber of Agriculture (CAMAGRO) rule. The Water Forum, a group of community and environmental organizations, points out that the average consumption of water for sugar cane irrigation is over 205 million cubic meters for an area of over 36,000 hectares in the coastal zone. A large percentage of that irrigation comes from the zone’s shallow aquifers. The rest is from surface waters, often without authorization. Other times they do have authorization... which while legal is illegitimate. One example is Central Izalco, property owned by the Regalado family in the western part of the country. This family pays only US$113 a year for unlimited use of water. The people of the area, many of whom pay $10 a month for the water they consume in their homes, consider this authorization a joke. Of the 7,000 sugar producers in the country, two families—the Regalado family and the Wright family—control 70% of the internal market and the preferential export market to the US and are thus the main beneficiaries of the lack of regulations over the use of water.

Water is big business


Something similar happens with the industrial sector. Not all industries use a disproportionate amount of water for the production processes that allow them to accumulate their wealth. Those that use the most are the bottling industries, construction and the extractive industries.

The bottling companies represent the most flagrant cases. The South African brewery SABMiller, which owns La Constancia Industries, the country’s main soda and beer producer, and is also the national and regional Coca-Cola distributor, has hogged the bottled water market with its brand, Agua Cristal; it is in first place in the use and abuse of water to generate profits. Since 1999, this company has been extracting water from the Nejapa aquifer with two wells that currently extract 34.67 million cubic meters a year. At that rate this water source will be dry in 30 years.

In 2013, this transnational company requested to expand its plant with the drilling of a third well. The request, which would imply moving its installations in San Salvador to the municipality of Nejapa, was an affront to the people of that municipality, only 50.2% of whom have access to household water. Thanks to their years of struggle since then, the government has taken its time with the company’s request, and the case is still open.

In this context, SABMiller announced in March of last year that “given the mounting insecurity affecting the communities around La Tiendona market, and wanting to guarantee the physical integrity of our collaborators and contractors, we find ourselves forced to temporarily suspend the Agua Cristal operations.” It’s not a very convincing argument for suspending the sale of Agua Cristal, as they still distribute Coca-Cola and beer in that area. Weren’t those workers exposed to the same unsafe risks? There are records of Agua Cristal distribution workers reporting that they weren’t paid the minimum wage or given access to social benefits, which reveals how little concern the company actually has for their safety. Seeing all this, the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES) suspected that the closing was “a measure to pressure the government to authorize the move of La Constancia’s water production plant to Nejapa despite everything.” UNES went public with this idea, asking the government “not to allow itself to be pressured by La Constancia Industries’ maneuver,” and demanding that the company “abandon its role of victim, seeing as it is in a dominant position from all points of view.”

Urban developers have a lot of responsibility


Urban developers and construction firms also commit abuses. In municipalities like San José Villanueva and Zaragoza in La Libertad, 75% of the population has difficulties accessing drinking water. At the same time, according to the Water Forum, high-ticket residential areas such as La Hacienda, Los Sueños and El Encanto Villas and Golf are granted unrestricted water services. In fact, they even receive enough water to keep the golf course nice and green.

The extraction of stone materials from rivers and recharge zones affects the natural riverbeds and the quantity and quality of the water sources, and also generates an imbalance in the fauna and flora of these ecosystems that threatens the populations located downriver. The clearest example is the Río Jiboa, from which several companies extract sand, gravel and rocks for building materials. CESSA, the country’s main cement plant, which is owned by the Swiss transnational Lafarge Holcim, stands out the most among these companies.

The recently approved Law to Prohibit Metal Mining, which bans all metal mining exploration and exploitation, is a huge relief for the people with respect to access to water. In just one mine, El Dorado in Cabañas, the Pacifica Rim company had plans to use almost 900,000 liters of water a day, the same amount needed to supply an average family for 20 years. To this abuse must be added the use of cyanide in the extraction of gold, which would have contaminated the Lempa river, leaving it totally unusable for the duration of the mining operations and for at least 10 years afterward.

This smells like privatization


The imbalance in access to water smells like privatization. Although water is one of the few public goods that wasn’t sold off during the 1989-2008 flurry of privatizations, the unfair and scandalous permits and covert concessions at the time were embryonic forms of privatization because they operate by the same logic: the State hands over a public good to those who buy it and turn it into “their property.”

In 2003, then-Human Rights Ombudsperson Beatrice de Carrillo stated: “I want to warn everyone that with the so-called intention of improving water distribution services, dangerous service provision modalities are being promoted that could lead to the privatization of this service.”

Bolivia’s water war


In the international struggle against neoliberalism and for access to water as a common good, 2006 was an emblematic year. In Bolivia the people of Cochabamba won a victory by stopping the privatization of water, after six years of bloody struggle. The price of repealing the law that favored privatization and forcing both the transnational Aguas del Tunari to leave the country and the corrupt governor to resign was 1 person dead and 170 wounded under martial law. The consortium later sued the Bolivian government to recover its investments, but eventually had to withdraw the legal action. In that “water war” Bolivians taught all the people of Latin America and the rest of the world that it was possible to beat a neoliberal project.

The Water Forum is born


That same year, 2006, a number of El Salvador’s community and environmental organizations joined together in what
they called the Water Forum to seek fundamental changes in the issue of water. The UNDP report had recently come out revealing the main ecological knot around the water problem—unjust management favoring the interests of the wealthiest—and the Water Forum responded by demanding “responsible, efficient, equal and participatory water management and avoidance of its privatization.”

Even though El Salvador had almost 30 legal regulations related to water management and 6 State institutions—ministries, autonomous entities and municipalities—dedicated to this task back then, none could resolve the demands to regulate and guarantee access to water. So in March of that year the Water Forum presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly that would ban privatization, prioritize human consumption and establish controlling entities with both state and citizen participation.

El Salvador has more than 2,000 rural water boards, local entities that manage their community’s water. The law would have grantd them representation. Carolina Amaya, ecologist and a member of UNES, recalls: “We knew the conditions didn’t exist for approval of the law at that time, but we wanted to generate debate and social mobilization around the issue because the Right was intensifying it efforts to privatize water.” And indeed it was.

A mini water war in Suchitoto


The following year, President Antonio Saca, who also headed the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, inaugurated a water project in the municipality of Suchitoto, supposedly to kick off a new policy decentralizing public water service.

Suchitoto’s community organizations, many of them Forum members, organized a citizens’ debate in the central park to mobilize people. Definining access to water as an indispensable human right that cannot be ommercialized encouraged other social organizations to join the protest. All understood the government’s act as merely symbolic, premonitory of the privatization of one of the few basic services that still was a public good.

That day we witnessed the most brutal repression in the country so far in this century, with 14 detained, 62 wounded and two entire communities intervened by the armed forces. Shortly after that more people were detained for struggling for water in the western town of Tacuba, where the population of the canton of La Puerta confronted the ARENA mayor for control over water in their community.

The right to water almost makes it into the Constitution


Even though the water bill was buried under other issues, the Water Forum, along with other organizations, started a struggle to include the right to water and food in the Constitution.

A reform to article 69 of the Constitution was unanimously approved during the last session of the retiring Assembly in 2012. it read that “water is an essential resource for life, therefore it is the obligation of the State to use and preserve water resources and obtain its access for all inhabitants.” All that remained was for the constitutional reform to be ratified by the incoming Assembly. But three years went by and this didn’t happen. Although the FMLN and GANA benches backed the reform, the legislators from ARENA, the National Coalition Party (PCN) and and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) denied their votes over and over again.

David Morales, the Human Rights Ombudsperson at the time, offered this interpretation: “There are transnational companies with economic interests here that pressure, so the human right to water doesn’t get approved in the legislative plenary.”

The Right also fights for the water


The Right has used several arguments to oppose grassroots proposals around water. They’ve called it a “confiscation of private property” and said it “would increase bureaucracy in the issuing of permits, which would limit investments,” “would mean more taxes for everyone,” “seeks to regulate a false water scarcity” and “affects consumption by rural communities.”

By late 2013, a new bill appeared in the Legislative Assembly, this one signed by the Irrigation Association, proposing a Water Authority composed of seven people, five from the private sector and two from the State. The intention was clear: to commercialize water. FMLN congresswoman Estela Hernandez, a member of the Environmental and Climate Change Commission, recalls that “when we called the Association leaders to ask them to explain their proposal, they knew nothing about its contents and disassociated themselves from the bill. ARENA and PCN congresspeople, whose signatures were on the bill, simply said they had signed it because “it was brought to them.”

Several months later, another bill—a virtual photocopy of the one by the Irrigation Association—was unveiled in the National Meeting of Private Enterprise (ENADE), ANEP’s maximum forum. The high rollers in ENADE are business groups such as CAMAGRO, CASALCO and the Salvadoran Association of Water Bottling Industries (ASIAGUA), all of which have a lot to gain from minimal regulation of water use and promote its privatization. Although their bill made the headlines of national newspapers, it never got as far as the Legislative Assembly.

The people keep struggling


The communities and organizations in the Water Forum have struggled against La Constancia, the Wright and Regalado families, the El Roble construction firm and other companies because they feel “their water’s been stolen,” and they’ve won some of their struggles. One example is the lawsuit won by organized communities in the Micro Watershed Committee and the Istatén Association against the sugarcane producers for the overexploitation of the Río Paz, on the border between El Salvador and Guatemala. These same people have begun to recover five kilometers of the Río Aguacate in the municipality of San Francisco Menéndez, Ahuachapan. Although they haven’t made newspaper headlines, these are important struggles.

In 2016, the press was full of news about the struggle of hundreds of citizens who protested in different places within the San Salvador metropolitan area, closing off the streets of the capital and of highways including the one to the international airport. They were all demanding water.

What were the similarities and differences between this struggle in the capital and those in the rural areas? Both were collective actions demanding water for human consumption and legitimate people’s expressions of a basic need. The difference was that the Ahuachapan communities were suing the sugarcane producers and cattle-raisers, those from Nejapa were opposing La Constancia and Coca-Cola
and those from La Libertad were fighting construction companies, while the urban communities were making their demands against the State and were asking for the presence of the president of the National Administration of Water and Sewer (ANDA) to negotiate with him.

Orange alert in San Salvador


These demands last year echoed one of the Right’s main slogans against today’s government: “The FMLN government is incapable.” The fact that this fed the media’s anti-government agenda is what made these claims so newsworthy.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén responded by declaring an orange alert, a national emergency in San Salvador’s metropolitan area. He explained that by doing so, ANDA’s president could ask for some US$3.5 million to improve the water supply to more than 2.5 million people who live in San Salvador. The director of Civil Protection, Jorge Meléndez, specified that, by law, the orange alert empowers the central government institutions, other state branches and municipal governments to “redirect their budgets to deal with the emergency.”

During the 90 days the emergency was in effect, nearly 45,000 cubic meters of drinking water were delivered to sectors facing a shortage, 48 storage tanks were filled daily and short-term work such as drilling a 270-meter deep well in the municipality of Apopa and installing 12-inch-diameter steel pipes got underway. The second phase of a pumping system was also started with the introduction of suction pipes and the construction of a cistern, a pump house and an electrical substation. The recovery of the Acelhuate river, an urgent long term-project, was also launched.

With these measures, the government demonstrated that it had the capacity to face the water crisis. It also made it clear that this problem could be solved with the approval of a General Water Law. President Sánchez Cerén took advantage the celebration of his second year in office to again ask the Legislative Assembly to approve that bill.

The water oligarchy’s mask is off


This June, the rightwing parties (ARENA, PCN, GANA and PCD) formally presented their own bill, the one revolving around the creation of an autonomous institution directed by two public sector and three private sector members. Congresswoman Estela Hernández stressed that “for the first time the Right’s proposal speaks openly about the participation of CAMAGRO and ASI [the Salvadoran Industry Association].” In representation of the “water oligarchy,” the Right was finally taking its mask off and showing its interest in privatization.
Not so curiously, the two spokespeople from those parties on the Environmental and Climate Change Commission were Johnny Wright, whose family dominates the sugar production and processing, and Mario Ponce, the vox populi for the interests of transnational companies linked to the commercialization of water. Both argued that their bill is based on a project previously agreed on with ANEP and MARN. MARN immediately disassociated itself from the bill, denying that it expressed its proposals for managing water in the country.

The Water Forum promptly joined a broad alliance with other social organizations that called itself the Alliance against Water Privatization. Supported by the Catholic Church and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they conducted protests in San Salvador’s streets and in front of the Legislative Assembly and its departmental offices throughout the country.

A privatizing proposal


The Alliance underscored three aspects of the Right’s bill that reveal its privatizing nature: “1. It proposes an autonomous Governing Entity whose board is mostly made up of ANEP and COMURES [the Corporation of Municipalities of the Republic of El Salvador, controlled by the parties from the Right], with authority to decide any aspect related to water, such as permits, use taxes, personnel of the governing entity, rules for potable water, etc., showing a clear conflict of interests with the largest users of water by trying to play both judge and jury. 2. It eliminates the formation of committees and watershed management and therefore effective participation by the people. 3. It prioritizes companies’ commercial use over the human right to water for the people supplied by the water boards and generates conditions for the privatization of potable water services.”

Faced with this grassroots reaction, ARENA distanced itself from its bill, leaving it with one lonely defender: Mario Ponce, from the PCN.

The proposal by the UCA and the Catholic Church


In this quandary the “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University (UCA) came up with a proposal that received the backing of the Catholic Church. The archbishop of San Salvador, José Escobar Alas, presented it with these words: “This proposal specifies how a governing entity should act, being predominately from the State but with non-State participation and also with an advisory arena of broad citizen participation and with local organizational structures that include the water boards.”

It’s not closed to the participation of big companies, which can always accede to positions within the leadership of a water governing entity, but their participation would not be majority and wouldn’t totally replace the participation of the water boards. Congresswoman Hernández called the UCA-Church proposal “intermediate,” something that could solve the current impasse around such a vital issue.

“We want water in all communities”


To have a forceful law for the defense of water is essential for the sectors that are celebrating their successes over the last eight years in closing the door to typically neoliberal water privatizing policies. They won’t be totally satisfied until there’s a law as clear as the Law Banning Metal Mining, which is one of the most important grassroots victories of these years.

María Barahona, from Tecoluca, San Vicente, and a participant in the Alliance against Water Privatization mobilizations, summed up the grassroots demands well: “We Salvadorans don’t want water privatized. We don’t want sugarcane plantations near water springs. We don’t want expensive or scarce water. All we want is water in all our communities.”

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envoi correspondent in El Salvador.

Print text   

Send text

Up
 
 
<< Previous   Next >>

Also...

Nicaragua
The curtain’s up, the stage set and the script written

Nicaragua
Nicaragua briets

Nicaragua
“Femicides tell us about the society we’ve constructed”

El Salvador
Water for everyone: A struggle for life

Guatemala
Democracy in the streets

Honduras
Machista violence killed Berta Cáceres

México
Questions from the rubble

Internacional
Reflections on the referendum in Catalonia
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development