Interview: Water Forum Warns of Dangers in Government's Water Resources Law

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On December 21, 2021, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved a Water Resources Law that had been widely criticized by environmental and popular movement organizations on the grounds that it includes various privatizing aspects and excludes community efforts to guarantee the right to water for the most vulnerable populations.

The government introduced the bill on June 18, 2021, shelving the previously proposed General Water Law, which had been under discussion for three years in the Environmental Commission. and thus erasing more than a decade of debate and consensus among social and environmental organizations. After new the bill was introduced, the majority party, New Ideas, formed an ad-hoc commission ostensibly to study it; however, none of the proposals from environmental or social movement organizations were incorporated into the bill. These organizations have thus denounced the government's bill, arguing that it establishes mechanisms to monopolize water use and institutionalizes water injustice.

In this interview with CISPES, conducted prior to the approval of the law, Dalia González, representative from the Water Forum, discusses the implications of this law for communities and for the environment. [The English version of this interview was translated and lightly edited by CISPES.]

What is the position of the Water Forum regarding the expected approval of the Water Resources Law?

After analyzing the Water Resources Law promoted by the Government, our position as the Water Forum is that, although the bill considers the human right to water, it designates no mechanisms or institutions to implement this right. As a result, the right remains only in Article 1—as a wish, but not as policy.

Further, the law does not resolve the situation of water injustice. There are various agreements that create water injustice, among them are the agreements between the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers (ANDA) and the Dueñas and Poma families [two of El Salvador’s richest families, members of the traditional oligarchy, and large real estate developers] for the construction of megaprojects such as Ciudad Valle del Ángel and Paseo del Prado. ANDA allows these two families and their projects to use 25 million liters of water per day. That quantity of water intensifies the problem of water shortage for almost half a million people from six surrounding municipalities in the metropolitan area. This is a mechanism of water injustice that the law does not resolve; it does not even address these agreements.

The first thing the law should do is oblige ANDA to make these agreements transparent before the Salvadoran Water Association (ASA), and that agency should be responsible for reviewing these agreements and processing new authorizations according to legal procedures.

The use of water for megaprojects has always been justified by saying that it is for the population’s use and that is why they are given priority. The Water Resources Law should create a special category for these megaprojects, equating them with industrial or commercial use so that they do not continue being given priority as is the case to date. All of this must be addressed if the situation of water injustice is truly to be resolved.

What does “water injustice” refer to?

Although the country has not yet fallen into a situation of water stress—that is, water is still available—the priority for water use is given to urban megaprojects, large companies, and the oligarchy, while communities and the general population are left without water. In reality, water flows to where the economic power is. So that's what we are talking about when we say water injustice: inequity and inequality in access to water.

Who are the main beneficiaries of this bill?

The bill definitely benefits the oligarchy, the economic clans. This is reflected in the agreements signed between ANDA and construction companies.

This [agreement] mechanism is an example of how the law continues to favor large companies. Another is in the coastal marine area where there’s the additional problem of the sugar agro-industry, which for years has exploited water. This exploitation is supposedly regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), but the sugar industry, justifying its actions in the weakness of the MAG, exploits water in the coastal zone for which it pays a pittance. The law should strengthen the MAG and strengthen institutionality overall; however, it does not and instead paves the way for large companies to continue exploiting water.

There are more than 2,500 water boards in the country that supply 1.4 million people. We are talking about almost 25% of the population. These water boards do not operate for profit, and what they collect [in revenue] is for the maintenance of the system itself, but the legal system does not recognize them. The water boards have fought for 40 years for legal recognition and for a General Water Law. However, the law promoted by the government does not recognize them nor does it create a supply permit for rural and urban populations. By not creating this permit, we have two consequences: The first is that the water boards will have to pay a royalty fee even though they do not have a profit-making purpose—unlike the large companies. This will translate into users of these boards [ie, consumers] having to pay more, because the fees will be handed down to them. And we are talking about people living in the poorest areas of the country. So this law also makes these people pay more, while it favors large companies by protecting the agreements signed by ANDA with the Dueñas and Poma families.

In addition, the water boards are only given five-year authorization permits, while companies are given up to 15- or 30-year permits, and this also translates into inequality. We, as the Water Forum, proposed that the water boards not pay fees and that they be given authorizations of up to 50 years.

The organizations have indicated that the law is privatizing, why is this?

The ASA is made up mostly of the ministries [government agencies]—so public administration, which, yes, is public management—but it is a vertical system of public management, totally bureaucratic and without citizen or community participation because it excludes the water boards and the basin committees, which are two spaces where women's environmental organizations, peasant organizations, and the like could participate. So it completely denies the participation of these sectors. Therefore, this "public management" is put at the service of the oligarchy and of big corporations. In fact, the National Association of Private Enterprise [ANEP] and private companies no longer even need representation in the ASA when the State places itself in their service. The government’s bill does not respond to this reality or to community complaints against agreements that have been a mechanism for the dispossession of water from those communities. It is a generic law that does not respond to these socio-environmental conflicts that exist in the country.

Again, it is public management, but a public management that is centralized, vertical, and totally bureaucratic, which is put at the service of capital.

So what I think we must fight for is community public management. This law creates a public-private partnership where communities have been excluded, and our fight is for a public-community partnership.

What other implications would the approval of this bill have?

As the Water Forum, we also asked that a special administrative authority be created for the Lempa River as it is an important aquifer reserve for the country that is in water crisis; however, this law sees this crisis and does not create the special authority that we proposed, nor does it detail the water planning system.

Authorizations are also being given to large water users for 15 years without requiring environmental [impact tests or] permits or further processing. Even though there is a socio-environmental crisis, water will practically be delivered to companies without any study. The dispossession of water is made easier for large companies.

And then there is the process [of consultation regarding the law, carried out by the ad-hoc commission]: In this process, more than 65 social and community organizations participated, but, for the most part, their proposals were not taken into account. The ad-hoc commission did not respond to the political demands made by the people to include the needs and proposals of communities and organizations. Instead, it merely facilitated the government’s strategy of accumulating political revenue and putting on a show, just so that they could say “we are listening.” This is unfortunate because for more than 15 years these organizations have fought for a General Water Law. We must denounce the fact that their proposals were not taken into account.

If the project is approved, what is at risk for the communities that have less access to water?

As mentioned, one of the risks is that the water boards will be charged a fee; this means an increase in fees that users of community water systems in the poorest areas of the country will pay. The water boards supply almost 25% of the population, and this increase has significant economic implications.

Another danger is the exploitation of the aquifers. The agreements enable companies to continue to exploit water unconstitutionally, and this means less water recharge through waterproofing the soils and less water for people. The Chalchuapa River is also threatened, affecting more than 1,200 families.

When the discussion of the law began, some organizations gave the government the benefit of the doubt; three months after the process began, the project is ready for a vote. Are there any positive aspects resulting from this process?

The [Water Resources] law considers the human right to water in its Article 1, which is good, but this right is not developed in the law. It is important to create an institutional framework in accordance with these rights or principles, to realize the human right to water.

Public management is one of the things that we have been demanding for years, but we want public management associated with community management and we want the presence of the State but also of the communities. This law totally excludes the communities and totally denies the participation of organizations.

The project is similar in some ways to the [General Water Law] proposed by the organizations, but there are things that have been eliminated, that are not considered, and that are essential for there to be sustainable water management. So we do not have a law that resolves the environmental conflicts in the territories or that responds to the needs of the people.

What will be the course of action for environmental organizations if the law is approved?

I think it will be to continue informing, struggling. As the Water Forum, we are able to bring forward lawsuits and sometimes we present unconstitutionality appeals in the Constitutional Chamber, for example. I believe that we must continue with this demand before the State, because it is our right as citizens to be able to demand from the State and from the Legislative Assembly approval of laws that truly respond to the interests of the majority. So I think that demand has to continue.

Actions can also be taken at the international level, but the most important thing, I think, is at the organizational level, the community level: strengthening community organization, strengthening ourselves as organizations, as well as upholding the demands of all people across the country who have been fighting and who have not stopped insisting on a General Water Law, on the human right to water, on water justice. So, recognizing that struggle and trying to strengthen it and continue on that path.

This fight does not stop here. We have to continue insisting and being vigilant, studying the law and seeing how it favors large companies, capital, and call attention to that.

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