Environment, Uncategorized

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.


Buying Up El Espino – the Last Lung of San Salvador

In the past couple of weeks, El Faro.net has published a couple of articles about Finca El Espino. An article last week reported that a Salvadoran court has allowed the sale of 7 manzanas (12 acres) to continue. An article posted on Monday reports that José Roberto Argueta Manzano, who led an effort to purchase 213 manzanas (370 acres), has been appointed to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. El Faro’s articles are reminders that one of El Salvador’s most important natural resources remains under a constant threat of being destroyed.

Last week a judge in Tonacatepeque said there were no legal reasons to nullify a 2011 aucAnction that resulted in the sale of two lots totaling 12 acres in El Espino. Salvadoran contractor Raúl Arguello González paid $4,020,000 for the two pieces of land, and the court’s decision will allow the parties to complete the sale by registering the transaction with the National Registry.

In early 2006, Argueta Manzano and the Ancona Corporation purchased 370 acres of land in El Espino for $2,979,000 during a similar public auction. This summer, Argueta Manzano was appointed to be a magistrate in the Supreme Court’s Public Sector Dispute chamber(one of four chambers charged with hearing administrative law cases).

El Faro.net has reported on Finca El Espino regularly over the years, referring to it as San Salvador’s last lung because it is El Salvador’s largest carbon sink. El Espino is also an extremely important aquifer recharge zone. Seasonal rainwater drains down from the San Salvador volcano and soaks into the aquifer underneath, providing as much as 40% of the water for San Salvador.

In 2008, ComUnica en Linea (an online journal published by the University of Central America) posted an informative article on El Espino.  From the 1860s to 1980 Finca El Espino belonged to the Dueñas family. In 1980 President Duarte passed agrarian reform and expropriated El Espino from the Dueñas family and placed it in the control of the El Espino Agricultural Production Cooperative. In 1987, the Supreme Court revoked the expropriation and returned the property back to the Dueñas family. The members of the Cooperative rejected the Court’s findings and began a protracted legal battle over who owned the property. In 1993, the Cristiani Administration bought 83% of El Espino (1,194 acres) and titled it to the Cooperative.

Since then, the Cooperative has sold off much of El Espino, one piece at a time –the sales to Argueta Manzano and Raúl Arguello González are just two examples. Laws and the Cooperative’s own statutes that protect the forest prevent the outright sale of property within El Espino. Loopholes, however, have allowed churches, contractors, developers, and law firms (which often hold land for international investors) to purchase large tracks of the protected area. One of the El Faro articles says, “the sale of all of Finca [El Espino] is just a question of time.”

Most of El Espino, including the sections that were recently auctioned off, is technically still a protected area, so it’s unlikely that Argueta Manzano and Arguello González will be breaking out chainsaws in the immediate future. But they and others have invested millions of dollars in buying land, surely with the expectation that they will be able to develop it sometime in the future. There is plenty of precedent to give them hope. Within the past 10 years the government has approved destruction of part of El Espino for a San Salvador by-pass system. In 2004 developers cleared a section of the forest to build the Multiplaza shopping center. There are also high-end housing developments, a golf course, government complexes and much more on what used to be part of San Salvador’s last lung.

In 2005 the Legislative Assembly gave into popular pressure and passed the Law of Protected Natural Areas. Laws, however, can be overturned and amended, and clever attorneys make lots of money to find loopholes. Investors understand this well – why else buy sections of Finca El Espino?