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Legislature Finally Turns Its Attention To El Salvador’s Water Woes

January 24, 2013
El Salvador's Rio Lempa (IUCNweb/Flickr)

El Salvador’s Rio Lempa (IUCNweb/Flickr)

For the million or so residents of greater San Salvador whose faucets run dry on a regular basis, the message they received in late April from the Administración de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA) was a familiar one: “It’s going to be a while.”

Due to technical problems, the pumping station that supplies those homes is only operating at about half capacity right now, according to ANDA, El Salvador’s state water regulator. Las Parvas, as the plant is called, draws water from Río Lempa, El Salvador’s largest river, and supplies between 45% and 60% of greater San Salvador’s drinking water.

The good news, ANDA head Marcos Fortín told reporters, is that his agency is close to inking a deal with the Central American Bank of Economic Integration to secure $20 million to upgrade the pump. The bad news is that he doesn’t expect the project will be put up for public tender until October at the earliest. When the actual repairs will be completed is anybody’s guess.

“Its shelf life has already expired,” said Fortín told reporters. “It’s in a critical state right now. For 18 years it hasn’t received any preventative or corrective maintenance.”

The ANDA president was talking specifically about Las Parvas. But he might as well have been describing El Salvador’s entire fresh water network, both natural and manmade. Maintenance and repair issues are part of the problem. Coverage is another.

Many Salvadorans, especially in rural areas, are not connected to ANDA’s water grid at all. The most recent Encuesta de Hogares de Propositos Multiples (EHPM), an annual census carried out by the Ministerio de Economía, found that more than 27% of Salvadoran households still do not have running water on their properties. In rural areas, only about one in two households have their own faucets.

Water quality is another serious concern for the tiny Central American country. In mid 2010, El Salvador’s Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, or MARN, tested water samples from 55 different Salvadoran rivers. Researchers classified just 2% of those samples as “good.” A third of the samples, in contrast, were labeled “bad” (27%), meaning the water quality “restricts the development of aquatic life,” or “horrible” (6%), meaning aquatic life simply cannot survive in it.

More troubling still is that 90% of the samples tested would be unsafe for human consumption even if the water was first treated using conventional methods, namely boiling, chlorinating or filtering, according to MARN.

The study went on to say that only 6% of the 124 sites included in the survey were apt for human recreation. “The remaining 94% showed high levels of turbidity, low levels of dissolved oxygen, and serious contamination from fecal coliforms,” a MARN press release from March 2011 reads. High fecal content also makes much of El Salvador’s river water unsuitable for irrigation. Researchers concluded that of the 59 spots they tested along the Río Lempa, only 12% had water that could safely be used to irrigate.

Demanding government action

None of this is news to groups like the Unidad Ecologica Salvadoreña (UNES), a San Salvador-based environmental organization that has been trying to draw government attention to the country’s water crisis for years. According to UNES, the only way El Salvador can hope to solve the myriad water problems is by first asserting greater state control over the situation.

For starters, that means increasing budgets so that ANDA can extend coverage, repair existing infrastructure and build more water treatment facilities. It also means cracking down on pollution from industry and farming, and regulating who exactly uses the country’s water resources and for what purposes. “The water crisis is the biggest socio-environmental problem El Salvador faces,” UNES’ Angel Ibarra told the online news portal ContraPunto this past March.

In 2006 UNES joined dozens of other grass roots organizations in presenting El Salvador’s unicameral Asamblea Legislativa (AL) with a proposal for a General Water Law. The bill’s backers, organized under an umbrella group called the Foro Nacional del Agua, insist it would allow for greater and more coordinated state control over how the country’s fresh water resources are used, treated and protected. The bill defines access to water as a human right, and prioritizes human consumption of the resource over industrial and commercial interests.

The AL ignored the proposals for years, prompting the Foro to submit another version of the bill in March, 2011. But that too was dismissed by the AL, which said it would not begin to address the water issue until it received an “official” draft law from the government.

Prioritizing human consumption

That excuse no longer applies. On World Water Day, March 22, Environment Minister Herman Rosa Chávez presented the Asamblea with a 178-point Ley General de Agua, a comprehensive draft law that looks to “guarantee the right to water” by establishing a usage blueprint for all of El Salvador’s water resources. “There is no other country in Latin America with as critical a situation as the one El Salvador faces,” Rosa Chávez said during the official presentation.

One of the principle features of the bill is that it prioritizes human consumption over other uses of water – such as irrigation or electricity generation, for example – which have preference, in turn, over industrial and commercial interests. In this way the legislation offers authorities clear guidelines for how to resolve conflicts over the resource.

The draft law, furthermore, calls for creation of a special water tribunal to ensure not only that the usage priorities are respected, but that individuals or enterprises be held accountable also for environmental infractions. To enforce the law, the tribunal will have authority to impose fines ranging from hundreds to millions of dollars.

“Finally, the Asamblea no longer has an excuse for why it won’t begin debating [the water issue],” UNES’ Carlos Flores told fellow demonstrators during a March 22 gathering outside of the AL building in San Salvador. “The Asamblea’s been saying for about five years now that as long as the executive branch doesn’t propose a law, there’s no law… Now it’s our responsibility to review the proposal that MARN presented today.”

Shifting political currents

But even if the AL does finally turn its attention to the water crisis, there is no guarantee it will approve the MARN bill, especially now that the Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), a left-wing party allied with the administration of President Mauricio Funes, has lost some of its leverage in the legislature.

Upon receiving the bill in March, FMLN Dep. Sigfrido Reyes, the AL president, acknowledged that El Savlador has “a lot of people without access to water.” The environmental situation, furthermore, is “very troubling,” he said, urging his colleagues to work quickly on the MARN bill.

As of last week, however, Reyes is no longer presiding over the same group of deputies. Thanks to this year’s mid-term parliamentary elections, the far-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) now has a two-seat advantage over Reyes’s FMLN, which lost four seats in the March 12 contest. ARENA controls 33 of the AL’s 84 seats while the FMLN and the conservative Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA), a relatively new party made up of mostly ARENA defectors, have 31 and 11 seats respectively. Three minor parties hold the AL’s remaining seats.

Members of the Foro Nacional del Agua say the resurgence of ARENA does not bode well for the Ley General de Agua. “ARENA has been one of the parties… that has opposed protecting natural resources, and not just water,” Angel Ibarra of UNES told ContraPunto during an early March water conference held by the Foro Nacional del Agua. “The economic model that they propose, the economic model that they protect, is one that’s based on looting [resources].”

The Foro’s water conference, held just a week before the parliamentary election, had hoped to attract participants from all of the country’s political parties. A handful of FMLN, GANA and independents attended. ARENA was a no show.

“Their absence doesn’t surprise us,” said Ibarra. “It’s coherent with the vision they’ve had within the Asamblea Legislativa.”

(This article originally appeared May 10, 2012 in LADB)

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