In a September 23 interview with Diario Co Latino, Lourdes Palacios, FMLN Diputada to the Legislative Assembly’s recently formed Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, spoke about the lack of legislative progress on the country’s environmental issues as well as the perceived ineffectualness of the Environmental Commission.
Until early May 2010, environmental issues belonged to the Committee on Health. Due to the daunting number of issues facing the committee, however, the FMLN proposed splitting the body to increase efficiency in tackling the issues. Back in March, Representative Palacios commented that the Committee on Health and the Environment’s agenda was so saturated with health issues that it did not “allow us to advance on the environmental agenda” (El Diario de Hoy, 29 March 2010). On May 11, 2010, the Legislative Assembly created the Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, and the former committee became the Health Committee.
Government officials hoped that the Environmental Committee would give politicians the legislative muscle required to focus on protecting, conserving and restoring the nation’s environmental integrity. The administrative split resulted in the transfer of 101 issues (files) being from the old Health Committee to the new Environmental Committee. In addition, the Environmental Committee has taken on the environmental challenges that have received little attention (greenhouse gases, climate change, and protecting hydrographic basins) (ComUnica, 21 April 2010). As a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the new Committee on the Environment and Climate Change is tasked in part with helping El Salvador fulfill its treaty obligations.
In her interview, Diputado Palacios expressed her disappointment that the Environmental Committee has been inactive and not accomplished anything of significance. She reports that since May 11, when the Legislative Assembly formed the committee, they have met only a few times and have failed to address important issues.
In reviewing the different issues before the Environmental Committee Diputada Palacios discussed the mining in depth, praising the members of the anti-mining movement for standing up for their rights and the environment. She believes that the anti-mining legislation before the committee is the most delayed and lacks consensus between the parties due to vested economic interests. Other issues still awaiting discussion despite numerous motions to bring them to the floor are the general water law, the Law of Civil Protection, Prevention and Protection Against Disasters, and reforms to the Law on the Environmental and Natural Resources, which Palacios feels needs strengthening and updating to reflect current realities. Diputado Palacios also said that one of the proposed reforms to the environmental law deals with solid waste, and focuses on strengthening recycling initiatives and preventative measures (e.g. bringing one’s own bags when shopping).
One important issue that has again taken a back seat to more prominent (but still stagnant) issues like the Mining Law is the General Water Law. First proposed to the Assembly back in March 2006 by the Foro Nacional del Agua (National Water Forum), the General Water Law aims to regulate, protect, and restore water resources. Over 80% of the country’s urban areas and only 44% of rural families have water service (News Millenium, 20 August 2010), and forecasters predict that El Salvador’s water supply will be catastrophically low within five years. Areas with water service may have intermittent access, and those without municipal water supplies often rely on short-term fixes like community wells, which can have devastating effects on poor communities without the financial resources to maintain them. A broken well pump in San Antonio del Monte, Sonsonate, for example, recently left 5,000 people without potable water in their homes for more than two months. The needed $6,000 to replace the pump or $3,000 to fix it; both prices were far beyond the reach of this impoverished community, forcing women to walk four miles to the nearest river (El Diario de Hoy, 4 August 2010).
The water issue in El Salvador also involves quality. There are no regulations concerning water quality in the country, and a recent study found that 43.25% of public schools in rural areas lack reliable access to potable water or plumbing systems. Rafael Callejas, executive director of Alianza del Milenio para el Agua (MWA), elaborated on the implications of the country’s unsatisfactory water system, saying that the act of ensuring potable water and indoor plumbing in schools helps achieve greater levels of student retention and reduces illnesses (La Prensa Gráfica, 29 September 2010).
FMLN Representative Lourdes Palacios stated in March, “It is necessary to have a regulation that guarantees access to potable water to the Salvadoran people” (El Diario de Hoy, 29 March 2010). Given El Salvador’s extremely high rate of pollution and water contamination, one might assume the water issue would receive somewhat immediate attention from the Committee. Palacios notes, however, that the Environmental Committee has made surprisingly little process on this or any other issue.
Representative Palacios laments that many perceive the Environmental and Climate Change Committee as “a commission that exists only in name”; perceptions will not change if the new Committee on the Environment and Climate Change fails to act on key and urgent issues facing the country.