About voicesfromelsalvador

Director of Voices on the Border

A New Agriculture is Possible, Without Toxic Agrochemicals or Monoculture

 The Joining Hands Network in El Salvador and Voices on the Border

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With great concern, we see that the large-scale production of sugarcane is seriously affecting the public health, access to water, the soil, biodiversity, and food security in the regions where it is grown. Contamination from agrochemicals is the main concern for those that live next to sugarcane fields. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers contaminate water and soil in the surrounding area, as well as the local fields and communities. Sugarcane growers apply fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides using crop-dusters, backpack sprayers, and spreaders pulled by tractors.

The heavy use of agrochemicals in sugarcane has profound impacts on the health of communities. Public health experts attribute the extremely high rates of chronic renal failure in coastal communities to the use of agrochemicals. The Ministry of Health conducted an investigation and found an epidemiological connection between the affected populations and farming practices that include high quantities of agrochemicals used in production. In a document published last August, the Ministry states “exposure to pesticides is the real trigger of the health tragedy that is affecting Salvadoran farming communities.”

THEREFORE, WE DEMAND:

  • The Legislative Assembly must immediately approve the pending Decree 473 that prohibits the importation and use of 11 toxic agrochemicals. Likewise, we insist that the Legislative Assembly ratify article 69 of the Constitution to establish access to water and food as a basic human right. We also demand the approval of the Law on Food Sovereignty.
  • The President of the Republic should sign Decree 473 and make every effort to accelerate the procedures for effectively prohibiting the toxic agrochemicals.
  • The Ministry of the Environment must dedicate more resources to protecting natural resources and stopping the serious impacts generated by the sugarcane industry. We demand a stop to the expansion of sugarcane fields and that the government do everything necessary to prohibit the harmful practices such as the application of toxic agrochemicals, heavy tilling of land, and the burning of sugarcane fields before harvest.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock must review subsidy policies, and discourage the delivery of agricultural packages that contain hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers, and in place they should promote agro-ecology.
  • The Ministry of Health must launch a campaign to inform people and famers about the health impacts of agrochemicals; primarily related to chronic renal failure that infects the populations in agricultural regions.

WE RECOGNIZE the efforts of the Ombudsman for Human Rights to emphasize the serious impacts of agrochemicals in violation of human rights, and his tireless efforts to pressure get all state institutions to give this issue the attention it deserves.

San Salvador, September 20, 2016

 

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La Red Uniendo Manos de El Salvador y Voces en la Frontera

Vemos con mucha preocupación que el cultivo de la caña de azúcar a gran escala está afectando gravemente, la salud pública, el acceso al agua, el suelo, la biodiversidad, la economía local y la seguridad alimentaria de las regiones donde se cultiva. La contaminación por agroquímicos es la preocupación principal de quienes viven cerca de los cañales. Los pesticidas tóxicos y los fertilizantes contaminan el agua de la región aledaña y los suelos, así como los campos y las comunidades locales. Los productores de la caña aplican fertilizantes, fungicidas, herbicidas y pesticidas utilizando aviones fumigadores, bombas rociadoras de mochila y pulverizadores halados por tractores.

Este uso intensivo de agroquímicos en la caña de azúcar tiene impactos profundos en la salud de las comunidades. Las tasas extremadamente altas de insuficiencia renal se atribuyen al uso de productos agroquímicos que contaminan la región costera. En los últimos años, cientos de personas a lo largo de la costa salvadoreña han muerto por insuficiencia renal. El Ministerio de Salud ha investigado y demostrado una relación epidemiológica entre las poblaciones afectadas y las prácticas agrícolas dominantes que incluyen el uso de altas cantidades de agroquímicos. Dicha institución, en un documento publicado el pasado mes de agosto, asegura que “la exposición a pesticidas constituye el verdadero elemento detonante de la tragedia sanitaria que está afectando a las comunidades agrícolas salvadoreñas.”

POR TANTO EXIGIMOS:

  • A la Asamblea Legislativa que de forma inmediata proceda a aprobar el decreto 473 para que de una vez por todas se prohíba la importación y uso de los 11 agroquímicos tóxicos aún pendientes. Así mismo le instamos a ratificar el artículo 69 de la Constitución que establece el agua y la alimentación como un derecho humano. Le demandamos también aprobar la Ley de Soberanía Alimentaria.
  • Al Presidente de la República que sancione el decreto 473, una vez aprobado por la Asamblea Legislativa, así mismo que ponga todo su empeño en acelerar los procedimientos para hacer efectiva la prohibición de los agroquímicos tóxicos.
  • Al Ministerio de Medio Ambiente ser más enérgico en la protección de los recursos naturales frente a los graves impactos que genera la producción de caña de azúcar. Le demandamos frenar la expansión de este cultivo y realizar todos los esfuerzos necesarios para prohibir prácticas nocivas como la aplicación de agro tóxicos, la labranza intensiva del suelo y la quema de los cañales antes de la cosecha.
  • Al Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería que revise la política de subsidios, y desalentar la entrega de paquetes agrícolas de semillas hibridas y fertilizantes sintéticos, y que en su lugar estimule la producción agroecológica.
  • Al Ministerio de Salud impulsar una campaña informativa sobre los impactos de los agro químicos en la salud, principalmente en lo relacionado con la insuficiencia renal crónica que padecen las poblaciones de las zonas agrícolas.

RECONOCEMOS

Los esfuerzos que hace la Procuraduría Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, con el propósito de enfatizar los graves impactos de los agroquímicos en la violación de derechos humanos, así como su incansable trabajo para que las diferentes instituciones del Estado asuman este tema con la preocupación y la urgencia que amerita.

San Salvador, 20 de septiembre de 2016

UNA NUEVA AGRICULTURA ES POSIBLE, SIN AGROTOXICOS NI MONOCULTIVOS

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Another Molasses Spill in El Salvador

El Salvador has had another molasses spill. This time as much as 2.5 million gallons has poured into the Cañas River. The spill occurred at the Salvadoran Distillery located at km 15.5 on the Troncal del Norte highway in Apopa, north of San Salvador. In the past, the Cabaña and Jiboa Sugarcane Mills leased the facility to make alcohol, though it is unclear if either facility was involved in this incident.

A representative of the Sugarcane Association reported the spill to authorities yesterday morning (Wednesday, June 1) at 11:30, claiming it had occurred just a couple hours earlier. Residents, however, report that there was a strange smell in the air and molasses in the river as early as Sunday. Mauricio Quinteros, the Director of Operations for the Sugarcane Association, told the Ministry of the Environment (MARN) that the molasses had been in the facility about a month and that the cause of the spill remains unknown.

The storage facility at the Distillery is close to the Cañas River. When the molasses leaked it ran straight into the river. Footage of the spill shows steaming hot molasses pouring out of an old, single story industrial building, and running towards the Cañas, while photos on the MARN website show the thick, black molasses actually entering the river.

One report from the  MARN says that even though the Apopa spill is larger, the damage is not as serious as the La Magdelena spill in May because the Cañas River is already so polluted that nothing can live in it – it’s a dead river. The Magdalena River was clean in comparison.

The Apopa spill comes less than a month after the Magdalena Mill in Santa Ana spilled more than 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River. Following that spill, the El Salvador’s Environmental Court ordered the Ministry of the environment to inspect all the mills to determine what measures they have in place to prevent future disasters.

The Apopa facility, however, was unregistered and did not have an environmental permit, so the Ministry of the Environment did not know it was being used for storing molasses. The Minister of the Environment Lina Pohl said, “this is an illegal storage facility. We in the Ministry did not have any idea that it existed. This distillery is not open and has not been in operation since 2006. None of the of the mills (Jiboa and Las Cabaña) that leased the place have applied for a permit to use the facility to store molasses.”

So far there is little information about who is responsible for the spill or whether they will be held responsible for the disaster. Minister Pohl said that the MARN’s job is to collect information and evidence, and that it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to file charges when crimes are committed.

Last week Voices on the Border released a report on large-scale sugarcane production in El Salvador. The report details the affects that tilling, application of agrochemicals, burning of fields, and use of ground water for irrigation has on the environment and nearby communities. Though the report does not discuss contamination of rivers and communities with molasses, it is proving to be a serious issue as well – one the MARN and other law enforcement agencies should be regulating more carefully. Unfortunately, government agencies seem to lack the will or authority necessary to protect El Salvador’s remaining natural resources. People and corporations have every reason to keep polluting, knowing that at least for now they enjoy almost complete impunity.

The communities that depend on the Magdalena River report that life is back to normal for them – less than a month after the spill. They say the water is crystal clean and they are able to use it again for washing clothes, bathing, and other domestic purposes. The Magdalena Sugar mill says it spent $200,000 in labor to clean up the mess, and that they will soon repopulate the river with fish and plant trees in the areas affected by the spill. The Attorney General’s Office reported in May that they have opened an investigation to determine whether the Magdalena Mill will face criminal charges. We’ll see…

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During these molasses spills, the Minister of the Environment and other government officials have been quick to voice their outrage, giving dramatic interviews in front of rivers of steaming molasses. These spills are outrageous and their response is justified, but it seems somewhat disingenuous in a country where 90% of rivers and lakes are polluted, and spills like this are a fact of life.Factories, municipalities, and others regularly dump untreated industrial waste and sewage into rivers without attracting the kind of attention these spills are getting.

And other aspects of large-scale sugarcane production are arguably worse than the occasional molasses spill. Burning sugarcane fields, which is a violation of the Salvadoran Penal Code (large-scale sugarcane production should not fall into the strictly cultural exception), should also generate outrage because it destroys land and makes people sick. Using crop dusters to spray deadly agrochemicals on sugarcane should also generate outrage because most of it drifts and settles on nearby homes, schools, soccer fields, and farms, also making people sick. Destructive tilling practices used in sugarcane production are also outrageous and arguably a violation of the Law on the Environment. The unregulated use of El Salvador’s remaining groundwater to irrigate sugarcane fields during the dry season is also worthy of outrage, especially because parts of El Salvador are experiencing a water crisis – a situation that will only get worse.

The Magdalena and Apopa molasses spills are just another outrageous aspect of a destructive industry and the government’s inability or unwillingness to enforce its environmental laws. Maybe these spills and the attention they are getting will force people and government officials to start doing something… or maybe the attention will go away after a couple news cycles.

Large-Scale Sugarcane Production in El Salvador

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A field of sugarcane burning just before harvest

Residents of rural communities throughout El Salvador are concerned that large-scale sugarcane cultivation threatens their environment, public health, access to water, local economy, and food sovereignty. El Salvador has laws and procedures in place that should regulate sugarcane production, but government officials at the national and local levels have been unable or unwilling to enforce them. Salvadoran sugarcane production has grown in recent years due to the country’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies that emphasize, in part, free trade and unregulated markets. Unfortunately, the profits and wealth generated by the industry do not trickle down to the communities where it is grown.

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Last year, Voices on the Border staff accompanied residents of the Bajo Lempa of Jiquilisco, Usulután as they stopped investors from planting sugarcane near local mangrove forests, wetlands, and community centers. Despite their success, the ad hoc protests failed to produce any long-term changes. During the process, however, residents, community leaders, and local civil society organizations articulated a need for more information about sugarcane production and how it affects the region.

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Voices on the Border staff responded by researching the issue of sugarcane cultivation and producing this report (click on the images to see the report in English and Spanish). We did so with several audiences in mind. The first was our partner communities in the Bajo Lempa that suffer the effects of burning fields, contamination of agrochemicals, loss of biodiversity, and other impacts of large-scale sugarcane production. A second audience is the government officials that have the power to regulate the industry, to ensure they know how sugarcane is affecting the regions like the Bajo Lempa. A third audience is members of the international community who are concerned with issues related to El Salvador, climate change, food sovereignty, environmental justice, and other topics.

Over the next several months, Voices on the Border will organize events in the Bajo Lempa to disseminate our findings and hopefully start a larger conversation about the impacts of sugarcane and large-scale agriculture. We will support the region in any advocacy campaign the organize, and will post regular updates to this blog.

 

Los Joveles Pig Farm and the Contamination of Rio Titihuapa

According to a group of concerned citizens and civil society organizations, the Joveles pig farm outside of Ilobasco, Cabañas is contaminating the Titihuapa River with urine, feces, blood and other waste. For nine years they have asked the Ministry of the Environment, municipal governments, the Police, and Attorney General to intervene, but the only thing officials have managed to do is to test the water and confirm that it is polluted.

The Titihuapa is a beautiful tributary of the Lempa River, cutting west to east through the middle of El Salvador, serving for a stretch as the border between Cabañas and San Vicente. In places, the river has carved out large canyons that are full of dense tropical undergrowth, caves, and petroglyphs from indigenous peoples that inhabited the region for thousands of years. According to Rhina Navarrete from ASIC (Friends of San Isidro), “the Titihuapa River is part of our identity and culture.”

Mario Guevara, a coordinator for the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change says, “many communities in rural areas depend on rivers [like the Titihuapa] for gathering water and to engage in activities such as fishing, as part of their economic subsistence. In addition, the rivers are ecosystems that permit abundant life and reproduction of a number of wildlife species.” He says, “it is inconceivable that businesses would dump their contaminated waste in the rivers with total impunity. Its not just the importance of the environment, but the life of the people.” Ms. Navarrete from ASIC also emphasizes that the Titihuapa is “the source of life for many families that fish and bring nourishment to their homes.”

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Waste from the Joveles farm affects more than more than 25,000 people in rural communities on both sides of the river (in Cabañas and San Vicente), and there is little question that the Titihuapa is contaminated with pig and chicken waste. Studies by the government and civil society organizations have shown as much. As early as 2008, the Ministry of Health and Pan American Health Organization identified Los Joveles as a major risk to the region’s water and environment because their waste treatment system is insufficient. Only representatives from the Joveles pig farm claim that nothing is wrong.

Los Joveles is located in Canton Santa Lucia on the main road between Ilobasco and San Isidro, just up the hill from the Titihuapa River. It is a large facility with more than 60,000 pigs and poultry, and several lagoons (see the photos above) that are supposed to hold the farm’s waste. According to locals, these ponds frequently spill over sending its contents straight into the Titihuapa.

Residents of Santa Lucia and other communities near the Titihuapa report that it smells of waste and its color has turned a putrid yellow-orange. There is a school nearby that is overrun with flies when the wind blows the wrong way. People first noticed there was a problem with the river in 2007 after rain washed waste from the lagoons into the river.

Pig farms are known to have significant environmental and public health impacts on their host communities. A literature review by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded that “ammonia emissions from hog farms pose a serious public threat,” and that “air emissions from lagoons, sprayfields, and hog houses have been linked to neurological and respiratory problems.” The study also reports that communities have to be concerned about hydrogen sulfide emissions, and that “hog waste that is ending up in the river contains disease-causing pathogens and increases antibiotic resistance.”

ADES, ASIC, Mufras-32, CESTA, and other environmental groups have worked with residents Cabañas and San Vicente to report the issue to the Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies, but they have had little response. The Ministry of the Environment came and studied the river in 2015 and confirmed that the river is contaminated with waste, which is decreasing the amount of oxygen in the water and killing off fish and other species. After completing the study, the Ministry and other government agencies and officials held an assembly to discuss some of the findings and how they would follow up. One frustrated assembly participant responded that, “the officials make a lot of promises, but they do nothing at all.”

The communities and organizations challenging the Joveles pig farm are seasoned activists that stood up to Pacific Rim Mining Company and closed down the El Dorado mining project in San Isidro. Prior to that, these same activists stopped a group of powerful mayors from opening a garbage dump near the Titijuapa River. And just as Pacific Rim had its supporters in Cabañas, so does Joveles. The pig farm is popular with many in the region because it provides jobs, and some people are willing to sacrifice the river and their own well-being for the hope of more jobs.

But many others agree with Ms. Navarrete and Mr. Guevara, that the river provides life and should be protected. These activists did not back down when their fellow activists were killed taking on Pacific Rim, and it is unlikely they will back down now.

Civil society organizations cannot do it all, however. The Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies have to do their jobs, which means going beyond water tests, writing reports, and holding community assemblies. It means holding those who pollute El Salvador’s water supplies accountable.

Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime in the near future. The government’s shortcomings have been on full display in the past two weeks since the Magdalena Sugar Mill spilled 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River in Santa Ana. There is no question that the Mill is responsible for the spill, and that the damage caused to the river and nearby communities is extensive, but all the Ministry of the Environment can do is order the mill to issue a public apology and design a cleanup plan.

The Titihuapa and Magdalena Rivers are just two examples of a big part of El Salvador’s water crisis – 90% of surface waters are polluted because government agencies like the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, and others will not or cannot stop or punish polluters.That gets us back to Mr. Guevara’s point that pollution makes it difficult for rural families. This week, Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur for Water reported data obtained from ANDA that at least 618,000 Salvadorans in rural communities do not have access to potable water. He recommended expanding the current state of emergency for San Salvador due to a great water shortage to rural areas as well.

While that would be a positive step, any real solution has to include government agencies doing their job in protecting the country’s natural resources, like the Titihuapa River. Until they do, Salvadorans will continue to live in crisis.

MARN Weak in Wake of Molasses Spill

DSC_0723Last week the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Santa Ana spilled 900,00 gallons of hot molasses into the Magdalena River, causing an environmental disaster. The spill is a reminder of how impotent the Ministry of the Environment is in protecting El Salvador’s natural resources.

In August 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of the Environment cannot to impose fines against persons or corporations that violate environmental laws. The Environmental Court can find someone guilty of polluting, engaging in harmful activities without an environmental permit, or any other violation, but they cannot impose a fine.

The problem is Article 89 of the Environmental Law. When the Environmental Court finds someone guilty of violating the law, Article 89 says the Ministry should impose fines based on the daily salary for urban workers in San Salvador. Day fines are a common tool in Latin American countries for measuring appropriate penalties. If a person or business cuts down a forest without permission, or spills molasses into a river, the court can (in theory) fine them the equivalent of 2-100 or 101-5,000 days salary depending on the severity of the crime. The dollar amount of the day salary is based on the minimum wage for urban workers in San Salvador. Unfortunately, the minimum wage decree does not have a category for urban workers in San Salvador, therefore the Constitutional Court said the Ministry cannot levee any fines.

Following the molasses spill, the Environmental court ordered the Magdalena Mill to issue a public apology by taking an ad out in El Salvador’s two largest newspapers. They also have to come up with a cleanup plan. But the Ministry cannot impose a fine or otherwise punish the Mill. Their only real loss is the revenue that selling 900,000 gallons of molasses would have brought in had they not spilled it. At $150/ton, that would be a $789,500 loss. That is definitely a hit to the Mill, but it is not punitive nor does it compensate locals or the State for the damage to an important common resource and the clean up. El Salvador is in water crisis and damage to a river like the Magdalena is more serious than ever, especially to the 450 families that depend on it for their survival.

In December 2015 and again this week Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asked the Legislative Assembly to fix Article 89 so the Ministry can levee fines. It seems like this would be an easy one – they just need to change a couple words so that fines are based on an actual minimum wage or some other measure.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Assembly has a bad record on doing the right thing when it comes to the environment, food, and water. The current arrangement is ideal for powerful business interests – there is an environmental law but no real consequences for ignoring it. They can skip environmental permitting processes and pollute with impunity. These businesses have a lot of influence over the Legislature and are likely to oppose any effort to change Article 89, just as they have opposed the General Law on Water proposed in 2005 and efforts to amend the Constitution to recognize food sovereignty and access to water as basic human rights.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután have seen the Ministry’s impotence in action (or inaction). In trying to stop sugarcane growers from planting crops near mangrove forests, community leaders asked Ministry officials to stop the project, arguing that the project did not have an environmental permit. The Ministry told the communities that they could only ask the growers to go through the permitting process but could not do anything to stop them.

The Ministry of the Environment is good at writing reports and declaring states of emergency, but their mandate is so much more than that. The Ministry is tasked with ensuring that Salvadorans enjoy their Constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment. The reports and states of emergency detail just how badly the Ministry has failed over the years.

This has to change if El Salvador is going to address the water crisis and other pending disasters. The Legislature must reform Article 89 to give the Ministry some teeth, but then the Ministry has to use those teeth to go after poluuters. Similarly, the Legislature has to pass the General Water Law as drafted by civil society organizations in 2005, and finally recognize that all Salvadorans have the right to food sovereignty and access to water.

Molasses Spill Contaminates Magdalena River in Chalchalupa

Several aspects of El Salvador’s sugarcane industry are detrimental to the environment – deep plowing, heavy application of toxic agrochemicals, burning fields, and excessive use of groundwater to name a few. (Voices will be publishing a report on the impacts of sugarcane in the coming weeks).

Last week, however, the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Chalchuapa, Santa Ana added industrial spills to the list of environmental harms. On Thursday the Salvadoran Civil Protection Services warned that the mill spilled 900,000 gallons of molasses into the nearby Magdalena River, which feeds into the Paz River.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, on Thursday Mill workers realized that molasses from freshly processed cane was unusually hot, almost 400° F (200° C), so they mixed in water and chemicals to cool it off. That led to a chemical reaction that caused the molasses to spill out of the collection area and into the Magdalena River.

Molasses is the thick, black syrup left over when mills (there are 6 operating in El Salvador) boil cane juice and extract sugar. The mills sell molasses on the international market where it is further processed into biofuel, alcohol, animal feed, and other products.

Following the spill, Civil Protection evacuated two homes. One man was burned when he tried to rescue his dog, who was stuck in the hot molasses (sadly, the dog did not make it out). The spill affects at least 454 families in eight communities around Chalchuapa. A quarter of those families depend on the river to satisfy their domestic and agricultural water needs.

Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said in an interview that the spill has killed fish as far as 5 km down river, and maybe further. She added that the chemicals added to the molasses to cool it down can also kill people if ingested. The seriousness of the spill forced the Ministry of the Environment to declare an environmental emergency, warning locals to stay away from the river and not to drink or use the water. An Environmental Court has opened a case against the Magdalena Sugarcane Mill, which may result in a fine.

Here is an update from the Minister of the Environment:

The spill and contamination of the Magdalena River reinforces the need to protect El Salvador’s water supplies. This is especially true considering the recent announcement that parts of El Salvador are experiencing water crisis. Over 90% of the country’s surface waters are contaminated with agricultural runoff and sewage, as well as untreated industrial waste.

The Ministry of the Environment, Civil Protection, and other agencies seem to be responding to this disaster appropriately and clean up is underway. But Government agencies have to do more to prevent such disasters. The Ministry is pretty good about identifying issues and writing reports, but very weak on regulation and enforcement. Government agencies have to work closely with private interests, communities, and civil society organizations to prevent disasters, and clean up the 90% of surface waters that are too contaminated to use.

El Salvador and Water: Chaos Reigns

 

El Salvador is facing a water crisis. Government officials say it’s due to a climate change-induced drought. We recently argued on this blog that the crisis is the result of unregulated development on fragile aquifer recharge zones. While these are serious problems, the bigger issue for the water crisis is that no one entity is responsible for managing water resources and ensuring they are used in a sustainable manner.

In the absence of water management, chaos reigns. The National Association of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA) provides water to 40% of the population. Another 40% of the population depends on no fewer than 2,366 local water boards (that’s 2,366 water boards in just 262 municipalities). The rest rely on private for-profit companies, wells, and other sources. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture is supposed to regulate irrigation; while the Ministry of the Environment protects recharge zones, rivers and lakes; and the Ministry of Health makes sure water is clean. This patchwork system fails because government agencies do not fulfill their roles and no single entity is responsible.

The ensuing chaos and lack of oversight allows golf courses, bottling companies, sugarcane growers, and other private interests to use all the water they want, no matter how it affects local communities. One golf course mentioned in the news a couple weeks ago has all the water it needs while 75% of the nearby populations struggle to satisfy their daily needs. Similarly, residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután report that sugarcane growers use so much ground water for irrigation that their wells are no longer deep enough and they don’t have enough water for their small farms.

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The right to water as a common good

Since the early 1990s and the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, Salvadorans have struggled over two competing visions for water management. Civil society organizations and communities argue that water is a common good and access is a basic human right. Accordingly, the government should protect water resources and ensure that all people have what they need to live healthy, productive lives. Business interests and conservative politicians argue that water is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the only way to satisfy demand to privatize and let the markets take over. These competing visions are not unique to El Salvador. The United States, Bolivia, India, and other countries around the world have struggled, at times violently, over whether water is a right or a commodity.

Civil society organizations have organized protests and marches, created an advocacy coalition (the Water Forum), and drafted legislation that recognizes water as a basic human right and regulates its use. The government and private actors have taken loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to facilitate privatized use of water, and drafted a law of their own. So far, the government has done nothing, forcing communities to take care of their own needs and allowing private interests to use all the water they want.

The one positive development is the 2,366 local water boards that provide services to communities that would otherwise go without. One example of a local board is the Association of Water Users in the Rural Areas of Tonacatepeque (ABAZORTO), which serves 1,700 families on the outskirts of San Salvador. In addition to providing water, ABAZORTO protects aquifer recharge areas with reforestation and conservation activities, and promotes sustainable agriculture. ABAZORTO has a model garden with 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables where they teach local farmers how to grow without using harmful agrochemicals that pollute rivers, streams, and groundwater. They also have a team of promoters that goes door-to-door and holds workshops in schools to teach the community about water management. ABAZORTO and other water boards are doing what the Legislative Assembly and Central Government are failing to do – managing water resources in a sustainable manner. But they cannot do it alone.

This week the President of ANDA and a block of FMLN legislators requested that the Legislative Assembly declare local water boards to be a social interest and exempt them from State fees leveed for water use. They also asked the Assembly to forgive outstanding debts water boards have for past use. This kind of support is an important part of water management, but it does nothing to stop private interests from exploiting the country’s water resources. The only way to accomplish that is by passing the General Water Law that the Water Forum proposed in 2005. The law would recognize water as a right, require sustainable management of water resources and recharge zones, and regulate private, for-profit use of water.

Environmental activist Carolina Amaya says the Legislative Assembly has not passed the Water Forum’s proposed law because business interests represented by conservative politicians want control over water resources. Their inaction and ongoing lack of water management is defacto privatization, in that private interests continue to use what they want with no oversight or regulation. Until that changes, El Salvador will continue to experience water crisis, no matter how many new pumps or miles of pipes that ANDA adds to the current system.