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.
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.