What the Census Didn’t Count: Water Rights and Privatization in El Salvador

Potable water access shouldn’t be a problem for the tiny community of Chilama in El Salvador. Located just outside of the Port City of La Libertad, Chilama is literally surrounded by water.

Potable water access shouldn’t be a problem for the tiny community of Chilama in El Salvador. Located just outside of the Port City of La Libertad, Chilama is literally surrounded by water.

Chilama is located within two miles of the Pacific Ocean, is tucked into the Chilama River bed, and plays host to a government water company pipeline that runs through the middle of the community. Nevertheless, for the roughly 40 families that live in Chilama, access to water has never come easy. During the dry season, overuse of the river upstream contaminates and dries up the Chilama River, which has been known to flood low lying houses with mud in rainy season. Likewise, the AdministraciĆ³n Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA), the government water company, has pipe that runs through the community to supply the port city beach hotels, yet doesn’t leave a single drop in the community. In fact, when the community diverted water from the pipe to local houses during one particularly severe drought period, ANDA took them to court.

The case of Chilama is indicative of the critical and controversial situation of water rights in El Salvador, one that has pitted rural communities demanding their rights against the Salvadoran Government’s neoliberal privatization plans. On July 2, 2007, President Tony Saca’s announced water decentralization plan triggered national protests and ended with the capture of 14 social organizers accused of terrorism for their role in the activities.

At the time, the critical water situation that lies behind the debate around privatization was all but forgotten before the international outcry at application of terrorism legislation to curb dissent. Nearly a year later, after all charges have finally been thrown out against the Suchitoto 14, the critical water situation remains.

Armando Flores, director of the NGO Center for Defense of the Consumer (CDC), has been outspoken about the problems facing the country: "El Salvador is fighting with Haiti for the indecorous last position in terms of access to potable water and sanitation; this gives us an idea of the gravity of this problem."

Nevertheless, with last month’s release of the 2007 National Census, the Salvadoran Government has tried to paint a brighter picture, fueling the ongoing controversy. ANDA recently claimed that the Census results prove that 8 out of 10 Salvadoran families now have access to potable water. However, according to the CDC, who cite United Nations Development Program numbers, that claim is deceptive.

ImageIn order to claim 80 percent water access, ANDA must count not only the sixty percent of the population that has access to potable water within their house or on their property, but also include another twenty percent of the population that must access water from public sources, adjacent private sources, or nearby wells. Especially in rural areas which have been historically marginalized by the central government, only 33.7 percent of the population has water access on their property, leaving a majority without secure access to water.

Furthermore, the CDC questions the indicators used to qualify sources of potable water, since water sources are not uniformly subject to quality standards. Water distribution is another concern, since it is not included in criteria for classifying homes as having access to water. While homes may be connected to a water distribution system, there may only be water in their pipes periodically at best.

Likewise, according to the CDC and the Center for Investigation of Salvadoran Public Opinion, 5 in 10 Salvadorans state they are subject to water rationing and the water they receive is not fit to drink. Also, 90 percent report water shortages at some time. This raises concerns as to the real progress being made towards improving water quality and access in the population as a whole, since building water infrastructure and piping to communities doesn’t immediately translate into quality potable water access.

According to the UNDP numbers, after taking all these factors into consideration, nearly 60 percent of households in El Salvador do not have indoor potable running water connections. According to the CDC, even those who do have running water often opt to buy bottled water if they can afford it, because of poor quality.

While official propaganda and paid television spots highlight the positives and showcase the communities benefited by Government aid in providing water, the Executive Branch keeps pushing new legislation that would further decentralize the service. ANDA and the Minister of the Environment have two new water law proposals under review in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. While the Executive Branch, NGO’s, and civil society have all called on the Legislative Assembly to pass laws to better regulate and oversee water distribution, the terms and versions of new laws are of much debate. Nevertheless, the actual content of the Executive Branch proposals have not yet become public knowledge, and many fear that they are an attempt to further the push for privatization without public debate.

According to Cesar Funes, President of ANDA and leader of the official party, ARENA, the objective of the government law proposal is to "legitimize public and community providers and organize and regulate the sector, since none of the providers, save ANDA, have regulating mechanisms."

However, for Rosa Centeno, Vice-president of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), the kind of regulation offered by ANDA is a thinly veiled scheme to open the door to privatization of water providers. According to Centeno, who represents 330 rural communities, regulation will inhibit community control of water resources by demanding levels of technology and quality control that aren’t feasible for the rural sector, while not offering communities with access to technology or training in quality control. When the community doesn’t meet regulations, the Government will step in to manage the water resources.

"According to Salvadoran Law, they could then contract the administration of the water resources to a private company," says Centeno.

This scenario is alarming for rural communities, say representatives of the Salvadoran Association for Humanity Help (PROVIDA), because these communities have financed, built, and currently administer their water resources. Rural communities have often received support from the local government to develop their water systems, but in the majority of cases do not receive any support from the central government. This is why many rural communities are concerned about privatization, especially those who already have water access.

"When Tony Saca went to the municipality of Suchitoto last July 2 to announce his water decentralization plan, he chose a municipality that already has 19 community administered water systems in place," says Lorena Martinez, CRIPDES President. "Of course the people in Suchitoto were going to reject privatization of their water systems, which many of them built with their own sweat. They don’t want to see the government sell their water systems to the highest bidder, and that is why we planned a peaceful forum to discuss the impacts of water privatization in our communities."

The rest of what happened in Suchitoto turned discussions about water laws into charges for acts of terrorism, yet the point of contention was the basic right to water.

That debate has only just begun. The Salvadoran Government currently invests an annual average of $19 million towards completing the United Nations Millennium Development Goals aimed at increasing water access. The World Bank says that this investment should increase to $70 million annually if El Salvador is to reach the Development Goals by 2015.

Rosa Centeno has a different theory, using the example of the government telephone company that was privatized in the 1990’s, a privatization justified by alleged poor service and costumer frustration.

"The government doesn’t invest in public services, and then claims they don’t work, and that to improve services they need to be privatized. But this only improves services for those who can pay for them, and the poor are forgotten," said Centeno. "Water is a human right, and if the government doesn’t guarantee it, who will?"

Photos Courtesy of CRIPDES

For more information visit US-El Salvador Sister Cities.