The fight to protect the right to water in El Salvador, the most water-stressed country in Central America, has been a long and uphill battle as social movements and progressive politicians run up against powerful corporate interests over whether water resources are public or private goods.
But with a national water scarcity emergency declared last month, the crisis has reached a tipping point. Water rights advocates are ramping up their already years-long struggle to enshrine the human right to water in El Salvador's constitution and force corporations to play their part in protecting the environment and conserving water for future generations.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether conservative factions in Congress will ease up on their staunch support for private interests and allow key proposals to move forward.
“Our demand is that water be recognized as a constitutional right,” Jose Maria Argueta, a member of El Salvador’s Foro del Agua coalition of environmental and human rights groups fighting for water rights, told teleSUR by phone. “Currently, there is no entity charged with ensuring the right to water for communities and society in general.”
Civil society groups, together with left-wing lawmakers of the ruling FMLN party, have been working for the past decade to get lawmakers to adopt a General Water Law aimed at protecting the right to water and regulating corporate use of the precious resource, but the proposal has long stagnated in Congress. Grassroots groups are also fighting to get the human right to water and food listed in the constitution to strengthen their movement.
Carlos Flores, another member of the Foro del Agua, argued that recognition of the right to water in the constitution would not only signal that El Salvador is willing to prioritize water on the political agenda, but would also offer an important tool to rights defenders working on the issue.
“The right to water gives us support to make demands,” Flores told teleSUR, adding that without recognition in the constitution, human rights rights can easily be superseded by other interests. “We can make reference to the right to water as a fundamental right in the constitution when defending natural resources in the face of national public interests projects,” including infrastructure “mega-projects” that could negatively impact watersheds, he said.
Corporate Control Leads to Water Crisis
According to FMLN Congress member Estela Hernandez, the proposed law comes out of a worsening crisis that has recently seen water shortages hit new areas previously not affected.
“This has been the product of poor management of water resources in our country and of the water grab by corporations,” Hernandez told teleSUR, pointing to exploitation of water resources by large bottling companies, the expansion of industrial agriculture, and neoliberal policies that enable widespread environmental degradation as driving forces in the crisis.
But the conservative opposition in Congress has long blocked the proposal. According to Flores, the motivation behind the stranglehold on the right to water is all about protecting corporate profits.
“The problem is that the right-wing parties in El Salvador defend the interests of a small group of business owners that benefit even from the crisis and the emergency that has been declared,” Flores said, adding that a variety of industries benefit enormously off systemic water mismanagement and are also given a free pass when it comes to contamination of the country’s precious resources.
For Hernandez, the ongoing threat to the legally enshrined right to water is represented in a conservative counter-proposal put forward by the right-wing ARENA party, which was founded by former Army major and death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson during the country's bloody civil war. The counter-law proposes putting control of water resources in the hands of private corporations.
The FMLN lawmaker argued that the legal sanctions and fines for water mismanagement, which would be set up through the proposed General Water Law championed by her party, are key in putting an end to the free market approach that has long seen businesses turn a profit off water exploitation and crisis.
Fighting to End a “Wild West” Approach to Water
Argueta argued that the water problem, worsened by environmental damage such as intense deforestation that keeps watersheds from being able to replenish properly, underlines the need for strong oversight and rules on the exploitation and potential misuse of the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.
“There are companies in the country that have wells in important aquifers for water exploitation,” Argueta added. “And these companies don’t pay high taxes even though they use large amounts of water.”
One such case that recently came to head is Coca-Cola’s exploitation of the Nejapa aquifer near the capital city of San Salvador. While the corporate giant has enjoyed bottling rights and corporate profits from Nejapa, the surrounding community has suffered. Local movements successfully rose up to finally block the expansion of Coca-Cola’s operations in the area last month, marking an important victory for water rights warriors. But the case is one of many and highlights the need for clear rules of the game.
According to Nathan Weller of EcoViva, a California-based organization that works in solidarity with Central American groups on sustainability and development issues, a legal framework around water access could prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place.
“The water law is a fundamental, systematic solution to this problem instead of going around and putting out fires like Nejapa,” Weller told teleSUR. “We see these conflicts come up because there isn’t a clear legal framework.”
While drought and scarcity are serious issues to be tackled, water quality is also a major problem with some 90 percent of surface water resources considered unsafe to drink by international standards.
What’s more, El Salvador is one of a few rogue nations in Latin America when it comes to water management. On the other side of the spectrum, Costa Rica, a water-rich nation and pioneer in environmental regulations in the region, updated its 75-year-old water law in 2014, underscoring just how overdue water legislation is in El Salvador.
And as Hernandez explained, not surprisingly it is the most marginalized communities that suffer the gravest consequences of the shortage of clean water.
Climate Change Sounds the Alarm on Water Scarcity
In conjunction with the proposed water law, grassroots movements are also pushing for a law on food sovereignty, corresponding with the demand to have the guaranteed constitutional right to both food and water. Advocates have faced resistance to proposals that seek to strengthen local food security by challenging the domination of transnational food and agriculture corporations in El Salvador.
But in the face of climate change, strategies to mitigate the impacts of adverse weather effects, including severe drought, and meet the food and water needs of the nation become increasingly important.
“Climate change is a contributing factor, it exacerbates the problem,” Weller said. “And that’s why this bill for water is coming due for the country.”
Flores agreed that climate change is an additional blow that worsens deeper problems. “El Salvador is unadapted to its own climatic variation,” he argued. “Even though winters and dry seasons are in accordance with the climatic variation of this territory, there are always impacts. The way water is managed in the country is unbalanced.”
That means that as climate change brings more intense weather effects, including more severe droughts, it exacerbates underlying policy and environmental management deficiencies that have already depleted resources and undermined the ability of watersheds to recuperate and replenish even during the rainy season.
Central America is one of the regions of the world hardest hit by climate change, and the reality is a stark reminder of the need for urgent action.
Continuing the Struggle Despite Challenges
Activists and progressive lawmakers are still waiting for Congress to take up the debate on the water law once again after years of stagnation and move toward its much-awaited approval.
Argueta expressed cautious hope that the intensification of water shortages in recent months will prompt a political shift among some lawmakers in order to move the proposed water law forward. But he added that the major fight remains with a core group of conservative politicians driven by big corporations with interests in seeing water resources completely privatized, not regulated as a public good.
“In the face of indifference of governors, we have to keep putting forward proposals,” said Argueta, adding that forums to raise public awareness about water issues is part of the process. “We’re going to continue organizing communities through local water committees and continue demanding that the government move forward and approve this law.”
It’s an uphill battle, but water rights activists in El Salvador are no strangers to the struggle. And, in the most water-stressed country in the region also plagued by rampant violence, the fight for water rights is an issue that could increasingly become a question of life and death, especially for future generations.