El Salvador: Water Bill Stagnates in Congress

(IPS) – A bill for protection, recovery and use of water resources in El Salvador, drafted by a platform of about 100 social, religious and academic organisations, has been bogged down in parliament for the past five years in spite of the country’s water crisis.

“Debate in Congress has been delayed due to lack of political will,” Carlos Flores of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), one of the civil society organisations belonging to the Water Forum, the umbrella group which presented the draft General Water Law to parliament, told IPS.

Under the government of former president Antonio Saca (2004-2009) of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the environment ministry did not back any of several bills that had been presented, many of them similar to the General Water Law bill which aims for sustainable use and consumption of water resources.

More than 20 draft laws presented by different social sectors have been rejected by the single chamber Congress since 2003, and it was not until 2006 that the congressional Environment and Climate Change Commission decided to initiate a debate on the Water Forum’s proposal. Since then, however, there has been no progress.

When the government of President Mauricio Funes of the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) took office in June 2009, there were hopes for a change of direction that would support a sustainable water policy.

But nothing happened, although environment ministry officials say the government is drafting a bill on the issue.

“The ministry will be presenting a proposal soon, so we have decided to wait and find out what it says,” FMLN lawmaker Edmundo Cabrera told IPS.

While political debate languishes, climate change is driving the country to the point at which demand for water exceeds the available supply, and quality declines, described as a situation of water stress.

A study titled “Situación de los recursos hídricos en Centroamérica: hacia una gestión integrada” (The Status of Water Resources in Central America: Towards Integrated Management), published in April by the Global Water Partnership (GWP), reports that El Salvador is the only Central American country faced with water scarcity.

It warns that water supply in El Salvador is hovering on the threshold of 1,700 cubic metres of water per person per year, the upper limit for the definition of water stress.

The quality of water in the country’s rivers is also an issue. A study by the environment ministry last April determined that only two percent of the rivers contain water that can be made fit for human consumption, or used for irrigation or recreational activities.

“We are experiencing a severe water crisis, which will become more serious as a result of climate change, which is why a law is urgently needed,” said Flores of UNES.

The bill before Congress stipulates, among other things, that access to water is a human right, and that all persons without distinction are entitled to have access to it in sufficient quantities.

It also provides for a regulatory body called the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), and states that water is a public good, and therefore its protection and use must take into account the common good, satisfying first, human needs, then those of living things and the country’s ecosystems, and finally agriculture and electricity generation.

The delay in debating and approving the bill may be due to its effect on certain economic interests.

Under the bill, commercial and industrial use of fresh water would be conditional on ensuring universal human domestic consumption first.

According to the latest household survey by the national statistics and census agency, 92.9 percent of the urban population has piped water, but the proportion in rural areas is only 63.9 percent.

The Water Forum proposal would place a two-year limit on permits for industrial and commercial water use, with the possibility of renewal. A water use tax would be levied, at a rate to be set by CONAGUA.

“Clearly, the law would affect (commerce and industry) because they would lose their current absolute freedom to use water, and they are going to hit the ceiling,” said Nayda Medrano, head of the Consumer Defence Centre (CDC), another organisation belonging to the Water Forum.

Medrano told IPS, however, that the intention of the bill was not to curtail the freedom of companies that use water in their production processes, but to monitor and regulate the sector to ensure that water is a human right.

When the debate on the Water Forum’s bill is finally resumed, it is likely that legislators will modify it or even remove controversial points, and add articles from the government’s proposal when it finally becomes available.

Gloria de Ávila of Alianza por el Agua, a network of over 330 public and private institutions in Spain and Central America working for the right to water, said she was optimistic that parliament would resume debate on the issue before the end of the year.

“This is the closest we have ever come to achieving a law; we are going to make a great effort for it to be approved before the end of the year,” she told IPS.