World Water Day: Organizations Call for Repeal of Privatizing Water Resources Law
Amid a week of protests, teach-ins, and cultural events to mark World Water Day, social movement organizations marched to the Legislative Assembly on March 22 with flags flying high, signs that read, “Water for the people, not for transnational corporations!” and demands more urgent than ever. As water scarcity intensifies in El Salvador, the movement’s most pressing demand is repeal or reform of the Water Resources Law, recently passed by the Salvadoran legislature that is now dominated by President Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party.
The gaps and contradictions in this law, organizations say, will exacerbate the water crisis, exclude community participation in water management, and deepen social inequalities. In the words of a representative from the National Alliance Against Water Privatization, “The law guarantees extractivism and is an instrument of commodification.”
El Salvador is the most water-stressed country in Central America, to the extent that widespread water scarcity represents a threat to survival. More than 600,000 families do not have access to drinking water, and hundreds of thousands more have limited or unreliable access. Studies warn that within 80 years, El Salvador could be uninhabitable due to the lack of water. Causes of scarcity include:
- Monopolized use of the country’s water resources by corporations and the sugarcane industry, which effectively rob tens of thousands of Salvadoran citizens of water every year;
- Pollution and contamination of more than 90% of El Salvador’s fresh water supply due to unregulated industrial waste, toxic pesticides, and regional mining;
- Sprawling urban “mega” development projects;
- Environmental degradation and climate change.
The social movement struggle in El Salvador to protect its fragile water resources, guarantee the human right to water, and ensure community participation in water management is decades long. However, under the Bukele administration, the movement faces aggressive new threats. After shelving the popular movement’s proposed General Water Law in May 2021, effectively erasing more than a decade of legislative advances, the ruling party-controlled Legislative Assembly passed the administration’s own “Water Resources Law” in December of 2021. The new law is set to enter into effect in June 2022.
The Water Resources Law has been roundly denounced by the broad coalition of social movement and civil society organizations that make up the National Water Forum and the National Alliance Against the Privatization of Water. In a statement shortly after the bill was introduced, they warned that: “The proposed law, although it nominally incorporates some of the non-negotiable points that social organizations have been proposing since 2006, presents a centralizing, top-down, bureaucratic system of management, without citizen participation at the local, territorial level and without effective control of the water policies.” Likewise, they say, important elements are absent, such as an approach that addresses “water injustice, gender equity, and sustainability, among others.”
In a recent interview with CISPES, a representative from the Water Forum further explained some of the movement’s objections to the law and why, despite the “human rights” rhetoric that Nuevas Ideas legislators have used in discussing the law, they see it as a privatizing endeavor.
- It entrenches water injustice by institutionalizing agreements between large corporations and ANDA (El Salvador’s water and sanitation administration). Currently, for example, ANDA grants concessions for up to 25 million liters of water use per day for massive urban housing developments to both the Poma and Dueñas families, two of El Salvador’s richest families. This massive quantity, monopolized for corporate use, exacerbates the already profound problem of water scarcity for nearly half a million people in the greater San Salvador area.
The law creates a new agency with the power to approve 15-year water use permits to corporations, to provide “certainty to investors,” with no daily limits on the amount corporations can extract in that period, a concession added to the final draft of the bill. Environmentalists and social movement organizations, including University of Central America researcher Andrés McKinley, say that “these volumes of water without extraction limits and with permits of 15 years are a privatization.”
- In contrast, local water boards, which supply water to at least 1.4 million people in El Salvador (a quarter of the population, most of whom ANDA's water systems do not reach), are limited to five-year authorization permits. The law likewise withholds legal recognition from local water boards as non-profit agencies, which means they will have to pay fees to use water in the way that for-profit corporations do. As the limited revenue of the water boards is used for system maintenance, this is likely to have a destabilizing effect, organizations say, or even lead to bankruptcy. The result would be more than a million people without water. In the meantime, it translates into increased service rates and less access for the people, especially for those living in some of the poorest areas of El Salvador.
- It excludes local water boards and other water management committees from decision-making over water management. Given that the water boards are spaces in which women's, environmental, and family farming organizations have a voice, this exclusion effectively “denies the participation of these sectors,” and is seen by social movement organizations as an attack on local community structures themselves, which will be weakened by this aspect of the law.
Therefore, although the law mention water as a human right and retains some definitions of public management on paper, in practice, it promotes a privatizing spirit, organizations say, because these mechanisms will put water management “in service of the oligarchy and of big corporations.”
With only three months until the new law is set to take effect, organizations mobilized across El Salvador on World Water Day to show their opposition.
In San Salvador, groups gathered at the Legislative Assembly to urge legislators to recognize the years of struggle and deliberation that have already been carried out to create a water law that meets environmental, gender equity, and human rights standards and to demand that the current law be either repealed or reformed to meet these standards. In official correspondence prepared for legislators, they detailed the following non-negotiable standards: water as a public good; the human right to water and sanitation; public control with effective community participation in decision-making; sustainable management of watersheds; and a just and equitable financial and economic framework.
Social movement representatives were not able to deliver their correspondence to legislators, however, as razor-wire barricades and riot police prevented them from entering the plaza outside the Assembly. This exclusion by force, which mirrors the broader climate of militarized repression and intimidation of popular movement activists in El Salvador under the Bukele administration is yet “another indication that the government does not intend to listen to the population,” and that the Legislative Assembly, “which is supposed to represent the people, has been usurped by business interests,” said the National Alliance Against Water Privatization.
In the face of ongoing repression, however, the organizations expressed their commitment to continue pressuring authorities to repeal the Water Resources Law and to formulate a new law that guarantees the human right to water and protects communities from industrial and extractivist projects.