The Water Crisis is not a Surprise

This week, El Salvador declared a State of Emergency in response to a major water shortage. ANDA says it is unable to extract the water it needs to satisfy the needs of the population. The most affected area is San Salvador.

water jugs - Roddy HughesThe lack of potable water is not a new issue for most Salvadorans. Impoverished communities in and around urban centers, as well as rural regions have struggled with limited access to water for many years. The issue has been so serious that ten years ago a coalition of El Salvador’s most prominent civil society organizations introduced a water law that, in part, recognized that all Salvadorans have the right to water. The proposed law was a response to years of reckless development, deforestation, unregulated dumping of solid and industrial waste, and poor management of water resources. The Legislative Assembly never approved the law.

In the 1990s and 2000s, activists tried to stop development projects in the El Espino Finca, an important forest at the base of the San Salvador Volcano. El Espino was a recharge zone for the largest aquifer in El Salvador, and one of the reasons for protecting it was to protect the country’s most important water resource. Activists lost and developers replaced the forests with high-end shopping centers, housing developments, golf courses, and highways. Activists also tried to stop development projects on the Cordillera del Balsamo. Government officials and developers ignored them and cut down trees, built homes, and paved roads. The La Prensa Grafica article about the State of Emergency cited the Altavista subdivision in Soyapango, a dense development of 38,000 homes, as an example of how bad development practices have diminished water supplies. As activists have argued for more than 20 years, if the government allows developers to cover recharge zones with buildings and roads, the ground will not absorb rainwater, and instead it will run off into the Pacific Ocean.

The current state of emergency is the price that Salvadorans are paying for many years of short-sited decisions that have generated wealth for a few, but put the greater population at risk of disaster.

In an interview this week, Lina Pohl said, “climate change is affecting water resources in El Salvador, so water levels in wells are falling.” There is no question that climate change is affecting El Salvador – at times there is no rain, at times there is too much. And climate-related storm surges have already caused salt water to contaminate wells in communities along the coast.

But the current crisis is more about reckless development and the mismanagement of water resources. Government agencies are responsible because they allowed developers to destroy the country’s natural resources. The Legislative Assembly is responsible for ignoring civil society organizations and their proposed General Water Law. Developers are responsible for putting their own economic interests over the wellbeing of the Salvadoran people. If these actors had not been so short-sited all these years, El Salvador would not be quite as vulnerable to the droughts and storms that climate change is bringing.

This crisis, however, is not just about sins of the past. The Ministry of the Environment still permits sugarcane growers to burn their fields before harvest. This bakes the soil, leaving it hard and unable to absorb rainwater and recharge aquifers along the coast. Government agencies still refuse to regulate the use of agrochemicals or stop illegal dumping of industrial waste, which pollute surface and ground water. And as El Faro pointed out this week, government agencies allow golf courses unlimited use of water supplies, while nearby populations go without.

It is good that the government has recognized the problem, though the solutions offered (some new pipes and pumps) are grossly insufficient, and will only allow for the more efficient depletion of groundwaters. Rain still won’t be able to soak into the ground and refill the aquifers, and surface waters will still be too polluted to use. It is time that the Legislative Assembly and Central Government take steps to undo twenty years of bad development; enforce environmental laws against agro-industry, factories, and all other large-scale development; begin managing water resources equitably; and pass the General Water Law proposed by civil society in 2005.

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