Update: Despite Right-Wing Ploys, the Struggle against the Privatization of Water Remains Strong

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Popular protests composed of nearly all sectors of Salvadoran society have maintained a nearly-constant presence in the streets to defend the country's scarce water resources from privatization. Photo: Water Forum (Foro Del Agua)

Facing overwhelming popular opposition to proposed legislation that would have opened the door to the privatization of water, El Salvador’s right-wing parties have adopted new tactics in the legislature, such as draining funds from the national water utility agency in order to drive it to the point of collapse. However, the diverse array of social movement organizations that are leading the defense of water have publicly denounced these maneuvers and remain united in their opposition to corporate control over water.

El Salvador’s water supply and distribution is managed by the National Aqueducts and Sewage Authority (Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados, ANDA), an autonomous public agency. During successive Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) administrations throughout the 2000s, ANDA was intentionally underfunded in order to provoke a deterioration of service, which the Right had hoped they could use as justification for privatization. In 2009, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) passed a reform that allowed ANDA to raise its rates appropriately, increasing revenue for ANDA and setting back the right wing’s privatizing designs.

So social movement organizations weren’t surprised when ARENA, stymied in their recent attempt to pass a sweeping overhaul to the country’s water system known as the Comprehensive Water Law, subsequently returned to their old tactics, introducing a “reform” to ANDA intended to reduce the amount of money ANDA can collect by complicating how it can set prices.

Currently, ANDA must submit its proposed consumer prices to the Ministry of Economy; however, if the new reform is passed, ANDA would have to submit them to the Technical and Planning Secretariat for a two-to-three month period of study. Once the Secretariat completes its study, it would then submit the proposed prices to the Legislative Assembly, which a right-wing majority currently dominates, for another two-to-three month review, after which the legislature would then approve or reject ANDA’s proposal. In the midst of all this review, ANDA would be forced to return to 2009 prices, which are insufficient to cover its operating expenses.

The social movement, represented by the Water Forum and the newly-formed National Alliance against the Privatization of Water denounced the reform, stating that the right-wing’s true objective is to “force ANDA, in a short-term period, to default on its payments, creating the perfect conditions to privatize potable water and treatment.” According to the Water Forum, the reform would also reduce water access for the eighty percent of Salvadoran households that receive water through ANDA at a subsidized cost, a direct violation of their human right to water.

The FMLN has vociferously opposed this measure. Victor Suazo, a FMLN legislator, criticized the bill, saying, “What ARENA seeks is for the Legislative Assembly to have final approval over the rates approved by the Executive. This would take away the power of the Ministry of Economy and pass it on to the Legislative Assembly. They are trying to politicize a topic that is technical [in nature] and that goes against the very law [governing] ANDA.”

In addition to attempting to defund ANDA, ARENA has also reached an agreement with a rival right-wing party, the Grand National Alliance (GANA), on the composition of a new board to govern water management if a water law is approved. Left up to them, it would include the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, and representatives of municipalities, universities, and business associations, the last under the guise of “agricultural productive sector and industrial sector.” In reality, these “business association” representatives would have the authority to disburse permits, charge fees, and impose fines as they choose.

But the Water Forum, the National Alliance and, thus far the FMLN, have been resolute in their opposition to any private sector participation in the proposed governance body and have continued to rally public and international support around the General Water Law, which would maintain and expand public control over water.

The stand-off has led the right-wing to resort to sabotaging the meetings of the Environmental and Climate Change Commission by simply not showing up, ensuring that a quorum can’t be established. A commission meeting set for October 23, didn’t occur, for example, because the president of the commission, ARENA legislator Marta Evelyn Batres, never convened it.

In response to these right-wing attempts to undermine public institutions and legislative processes, the Salvadoran people’s demand for justice has only increased. On September 27, the Catholic Church in El Salvador presented 200,000 signatures to the Legislative Assembly, demanding that access to water be recognized in the Constitution as a human right and that the General Water Law be passed. In the face of obvious stalling by right-wing parties on the issue of water until after the February 2019 presidential elections, the National Alliance Against the Privatization of Water and the Water Forum have jointly issued a call to all candidates for the February 2019 presidential elections to declare their opposition to the privatization of water in any way, shape or form and, moreover, to publicly support the General Water Law. Thus far, only FMLN candidate Hugo Martínez has done so.

Representatives of Salvadorans in the exterior, many of whom will vote in the upcoming presidential elections, and international allies also presented official correspondence on October 24th to the Legislative Assembly echoing these demands. Meanwhile, popular protests composed of nearly all sectors of Salvadoran society, diverse in age, gender, sexual identity, ability and faith, have maintained a nearly-constant presence in the streets to guarantee public control of this vital resource.

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Popular protests composed of nearly all sectors of Salvadoran society have maintained a nearly-constant presence in the streets to defend the country's scarce water resources from privatization. Photo: Water Forum (Foro Del Agua)