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Right to water in El Salvador: Time is running out

by Susan Spronk – April 8, 2015

Yanira Cortez, the Deputy Attorney for the office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, describes the water crisis in El Salvador as “a ticking bomb.”
Photo: Meera KarunananthanLast March, I visited El Salvador with a research team to investigate struggles for water justice in this small Central American country. In a report I co-wrote with Meera Karunananthan of the Blue Planet project, environmental and social justice activists describe how they are in a race against time to push for legal reforms that can help to preserve what are left of El Salvador’s dwindling freshwater supplies.
El Salvador is considered to be one of the most environmentally stressed countries in the region, second only to Haiti. While a moratorium on metal mining protects some parts of the watershed, existing ground and surface water supplies are severely contaminated by industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution.

Water law for community control

On World Water Day, we joined several thousands of Salvadorans on the streets to demand a new water law that would provide important tools to communities fighting for access to water. The law that they are pushing for is considered to be one of the most progressive in the world.
The proposed water law addresses environmental concerns by declaring water a commons that cannot be privatized, establishing public and community control over water resources and services. It would also set up a national body to coordinate the various agencies and departments currently working on water and make the government more accountable.
Most importantly, it would also grant greater power to Salvadoran communities currently engaged in battles against multinational corporations such as SABMiller (which bottles Coca-Cola), seeking greater access to scarce water resources by setting up a hierarchy of water use that would prioritize water for domestic purposes and local food production and establish the rights of impacted communities to consent to the use of their water supplies.
Thanks to a creative organizing effort that involved consultations with hundreds of communities across the country over a two-year period, a draft of the law was presented to the Salvadoran government in 2006 and introduced as a bill in Congress by the FMLN in 2012. Since then, however, the opposition has blocked the bill arguing that it will lead to increased tariffs for water services, drive out investments, and make El Salvador less competitive on the global stage. 

Human rights

In addition to the water law, water justice activists have also sought to enshrine the right to food and water in the Constitution. In 2012, the Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment that would guarantee the right to food and water but law requires that the reform be ratified by two consecutive legislatures.
The constitutional amendment is set to expire on April 30, 2015, and right-wing parties in El Salvador have flip-flopped and are now using their votes as a political bargaining chip to force the FMLN government to make concessions in other areas.
It is about time that the opposition recognized that the human right to water and food is more important than the corporate ‘right’ to profit by ratifying the amendment and passing the new water law.
Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is an active participant in several projects of the Red Vida and a research associate with the Municipal Services Project. She co-wrote the recently published Water at the heart of El Salvador’s struggle against neoliberalism with Meera Karunananthan from the Blue Planet Project.