About 50 union members, campesinos, and environmentalists blocked the Juan Pablo II thoroughfare near El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly to protest a proposed law that they say will effectively privatize El Salvador’s water. Protesters held large banners across six lanes and handed out flyers to passers-by. The action was held in coordination with seven other highway closures throughout El Salvador.
In Eastern El Salvador, the famous "Puente de Oro" that crosses the Lempa River–from which Salvadorans derive 60% of their water consumption– was shut down. The Action Campaign Against Hunger and Poverty coordinated the events.
According to the President of the national water agency, Cesár Funes, a water sector reform proposal will be introduced early next year. Under the proposal his agency, ANDA, would be downsized in favor of a newly created national water commission, to be called CONAGUA, which would establish a three-person panel to regulate water rates. Representation on that panel, according to the proposal, would come from the President, the Economy Ministry, and the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP, in Spanish) , a lobby of El Salvador’s most influential businessmen.
That provision had protesters piqued as they stopped traffic. "We want to know why ANEP has representation and we, the people, don’t. Water should not be treated as merchandise," said Francisco Morán of ACAPb, Association of Communities Affected by the Northern Highway.
"This law is repressive, because water is not merchandise. That’s why we are calling a popular referendum on it: we want the government to know the people are against this law," said Mario Chavez of CORDECOM (The Corporation of Communities for Cooperation and Solidarity).
Morán and Chavez said they supported an alternative law proposed by the environmental group UNES. "We’ve submitted what we call the "Consensus Law," because it is what we agreed to as communities and it takes into account environmental protection and people’s needs," said Morán.
About 60% of Salvadorans enjoy potable water in the home. For those without a connection, like Ana Ruth Guevara, life can be difficult. The "February 13" community where she lives relies on water purchased from a tank truck. "Our family uses about 3 barrels-full per day," she says. At the rate of $1 per barrel, she is paying about 15 to 20 times what the national water company, ANDA charges for the same quantity of water.
Members of the union representing ANDA workers, known as SETA, were among today’s protesters and said that the government proposal would do nothing to increase the percentage of households connected. Instead, they say, privatization would increase rates for those who already have water in the home.
"For years ANDA has tried to confuse us and make us believe that water privatization works better," noted one flyer. "But in places where they’ve done the same, like in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the rates rose between 40% and 100%."
Traffic was snarled for blocks around the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly as police struggled to maintain order among stalled motorists. The driver of a white Chevy pick-up that forced his way through protester lines, stepped out of his vehicle and threatened protesters from a distance, but soon left without further incident. After two hours, police from the UMO division cleared the avenue of protesters. Aside from isolated pushing, shoving, and angry words, protesters peacefully abandoned the avenue and allowed it to be re-opened to traffic. They held banners from sidewalks afterward.
Jason Wallach is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.