Environment

El Salvador and Water: Chaos Reigns

 

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Do not sell water, take care of it and defend it

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.

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.

El Salvador Government, Environment

The Legislative Assembly’s Environmental Debt

MontecristoThe current term of the Legislative Assembly comes to an end in a couple weeks and their inaction on environmental issues has left a huge debt to the people the were elected to serve.

When the Legislative Assembly began its 2012-2015 term, the body’s President Sigfrido Reyes said, “the debate in the current legislature requires a dignified position of the Parliament. As the Assembly begins, it is faced with some formidable challenges among them is reducing the environmental vulnerabilities.” A month later, Representative Francisco Zablath, President of the Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Change Commission, said, “What the Legislators do or fail to do affects millions of Salvadorans, and for that reason our task is to legislate responsibly and focus on the common good. So I promise to address water issues in a holistic manner and with the benefit of the population being the center focus.”

But three years later, the Legislative Assembly has accomplished little in protecting El Salvador’s environment and natural resources. Legislators managed to pass a ban on circus animals, extend an environmental emergency declaration in Sitio del Niño, and removed toxic chemicals from San Luis Talpa. These are important and necessary actions, but there are so many other big environmental issues the Legislature failed to act on.

The most emblematic is the General Water Law, which was first presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006. It is incredibly irresponsible that in 9 years legislators have yet to approve a law that regulates the use of water. El Salvador is on the brink of a water crisis, and the government must take action, but the legislature seems paralyzed.

Carolina Amaya, an environmental activist at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit argues that the reason they have not passed the General Water Law is that business leaders have close ties to right-wing legislators. These private, for-profit interests want to control water resources through privatization, and their representatives in the Legislature have been holding up the bill on the their behalf. Ms. Amaya says that giving private businesses control over water management would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

The Legislature has also failed to ratify an amendment to Article 69 of the Constitution, which would recognize food and water as a basic human right. The amendment was passed in April 2012 just before the last legislative term ended. But to become binding, the Legislature had to ratify it in this term with at least 56 votes, which they were unable to do. It seems like a pretty non-controversial bill giving people the right to adequate nutrition and water, and requiring the State to manage water resources in a way that provides people with adequate access to each.

Twice, legislators have tried to ratify the amendment, but the two conservative parties have voted against it without making any good policy arguments as to why. The Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, recently asked the Assembly, “the right [to food and water] is nothing you can deny, and will all due respect, and with all the respect I can communicate to the honorable legislators, I want to ask that you not reject the amendment and give this your vote, because if you reject it, you deny Salvadorans of their most important and fundamental rights.”

The reality is, however, the Legislative term will end in a couple weeks and with it the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the country – elevating the right to food and water to a constitutional right.

The legislature also continues to ignore the proposed ban on metallic mining. In a conversation with the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), Representative Lourdes Palacios, the Secretary of the Environmental and Climate Change Committee, recognized that the ban on mining has not been on the Commissions agenda and that they have not looked at the issue.

There are several other environmental issues that are important to Salvadorans and the natural resources they depend on but that the Legislative Assembly has ignored this term. These include the prohibition of toxic agrochemicals, passage of a food sovereignty law, and needed reforms to the Risk Management Law.

The current legislature is leaving a lot of unfinished business for the next term, as well as a big debt to Salvadorans whose health and wellbeing hang in the balance. Water, food and nutrition, mining, toxic agro-chemicals, and risk management are all issues that the Legislature has to address. The next legislative body cannot be irresponsible as their predecessors were – they have a moral and ethical obligation to the people that elected them to office.