Sandra Valladares scrapes together a living, washing windshields in the streets of El Salvador’s capital city. With a squeegee in hand, she explained she pays 50 cents to fill the red five-gallon jug she uses for washing — a supply she used to find for free.
“It’s not fair to sell water,” she said over the din of a march for water rights kicking off in the background on July 5. “No one should be denied water.”
On the heels of weeks of amplified debate and several protests over water rights in El Salvador, demonstrators had decided to march yet again as dry taps parched about one-sixth of the Central American country’s population. Since then, activists have continued organizing actions in San Salvador and around the country, including a national day of marches against water privatization.
A day before the July 5 march, as water trucks rumbled through the capital selling emergency water supplies after damages cut service to more than 1 million people, the conservative presidential hopeful for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) unexpectedly spurred on a stalled proposal to protect the right to water in the country’s constitution.
Critics argue the amendment, long blocked by the conservative politicians who now appear to support it, is window dressing on right-wing plans for de facto water privatization. ARENA, backed by El Salvador’s largest corporations, has proposed a bill that would hand regulatory power over water to private entities.
For years, social movements have demanded regulations to shield the country’s plentiful but contaminated water resources from overexploitation by corporations for agriculture, bottling, mining and other industries.
“We don’t want the abuse of water to be legalized,” said Oscar Ruiz, a representative of the United Community Association for Water and Agriculture (ACUA). Together with affected residents, Ruiz recently filed a complaint in an environmental court over a dried-up lagoon in an agricultural community where water-intensive sugar cane plantations guzzle resources. “Communities are practically being left without water.”
Water legislation supported by social movements has languished for years in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, despite a 2016 call from a United Nations expert to approve it. Introduced in 2006 and backed by the governing Farabundo Martí National Front (FMLN), the General Water Law faced steep resistance from the largest bloc, led by ARENA.
Now, after serving a strong defeat to the FMLN in the recent legislative elections, ARENA is pushing a counter-proposal.
ARENA’s Comprehensive Water Law, drafted with direction from the country’s largest business lobby, the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), was first introduced last year but revived in June. If approved, the law would establish a five-member board to regulate water. One of the seats would be selected by El Salvador’s president, two by ANEP and two by the Corporation of Municipalities (COMURES).
Many assume COMURES, a non-governmental body currently dominated by ARENA, would select one representative from each of the major parties, the FMLN and ARENA. Critics argue that in practice, the seat for ARENA would secure an additional business-friendly vote, tilting the board in favor of private interests.
The FMLN’s General Water Law, on the other hand, maintains that water should be regulated as a public good. The bill’s proposed regulatory body would be made up of public institutions, including the Ministry of the Environment, the national water distribution agency, the consumer protection authority and other entities.
“If there’s no water for the poor, there won’t be peace for the rich!” chanted demonstrators at the July 5 march in San Salvador. ARENA’s proposal has sparked widespread outcry and galvanized social pressure across a broad cross-section of sectors. Labor unions, churches, universities and other groups have urged lawmakers to shelve the so-called privatization bill and restart discussion on the FMLN-sponsored bill.
“In El Salvador, for years after the  peace accords, we have not had unity of all social movements,” said Hector Berríos, a social leader from San Isidro, Cabañas. “Today, the water issue has enabled us to bring everyone together.”
Over the course of two decades in executive power up until 2009, ARENA championed business-friendly policies, including privatizing electricity distribution after the end of the 12-year civil war between the US-backed government and the FMLN, then a leftist rebel insurgency.
Water escaped the privatization push, but the resource has remained weakly regulated. A patchwork of 2,325 self-governing community water boards now fills gaps in services provided by the national public water distributor, the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers (ANDA). Inadequate regulation hinders quality and service guarantees, especially in rural areas, and makes water resources susceptible to overexploitation. Effective regulation remains urgent as the country is set to be hard hit by climate change.
Student activist Marisa Ramirez put the stakes of the water debate succinctly: “If we allow the right-wing to privatize water, we run the total resounding risk that prices will be put on water consumption at a level that people won’t be able [to afford],” she said.
More than 1 million people in the nation of 6.3 million lacked water for multiple days beginning July 2 after damages to pipes in the water-rich Nejapa region cut service to parts of San Salvador and surrounding areas. Scores of people queued around water trucks in the heat to fill reserves until the taps were back on.
The government water distributor, ANDA, alleged sabotage, but police pointed to technical problems. Some cautioned the water shutoff could foreshadow future shortages.
“If water distribution falls in private hands, these crises may be repeated because there will not be full state sovereignty over water distribution,” said Eduardo Misero of the University of El Salvador Faculty of Medicine. “In any crisis that comes, the most affected will always be the middle and working classes.”
The shutoff forced 300 schools to suspend classes and delayed surgeries in hospitals in affected areas.
Amid the service outage and ongoing backlash over the privatization bill, ARENA’s candidate for the 2019 presidential elections, supermarket chain owner Carlos Calleja, rebooted discussions about adding the right to water to El Salvador’s Constitution. Lawmakers approved the reform in 2012 but never ratified it.
For years, social movements have been fighting for the reform to Article 69 of the Constitution, which outlines the state’s responsibility to control the “quality of food products and environmental conditions that can affect health and well-being,” insisting it should explicitly include the right to water. In 2016, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation also called on Salvadoran lawmakers to ratify the constitutional reform and pass regulatory legislation.
First the FMLN and now ARENA both have proposed updating Article 69 with language that would establish water as a human right and enshrine the state’s responsibility to create public policy to regulate the resource.
Edwin Oliva, secretary general of the Workers’ Trade Union of the University of El Salvador (SETUES) slammed Calleja’s call to reactivate the constitutional reform as a “farce,” arguing that the right wing’s water regulation plan is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of enshrining the right to water in the Constitution.
“We need to be clear about what the water law entails,” said Oliva. “There should not be private participation in regulating this vital liquid.”
As the water debate heats up, proponents of the controversial bill also have adopted water rights language that social movements have leaned on for years. Both ARENA and the business lobby ANEP have claimed they are opposed to privatization.
“We reiterate that it is completely false that ANEP wants to privatize water,” the business lobby said in a recent statement. “Much to the contrary, ANEP is opposed to this service being privatized and poor people dying of thirst.”
But critics say the corporate-friendly regulation model proposed belies a different agenda, putting oversight into private hands with corporate-appointed board members.
“It’s a double discourse,” said 26-year-old pharmacy student Brenda Montano. “They want to mislead the people.”
Many fear that the water issue could be manipulated for electoral ends in the lead-up to the February 2019 presidential vote. Midterm elections earlier this year, seen as a litmus test for the presidential race, saw the governing FMLN suffer its worst defeat in two decades. ARENA will be looking to keep in voters’ good graces to lock in another win in 2019.
Holding a sign that read “Calleja, you aren’t the solution” on the sidelines of the recent water march, 23-year-old journalism student Silvia Mejia slammed Calleja’s claim to stand for water rights as “pure political propaganda.”
“It’s a political strategy to win citizens’ sympathy,” she said. “For me, the solutions are in citizen movements.”
The current debate is the most significant activity over water issues in El Salvador since lawmakers approved a historic ban on metals mining last year, celebrated as a victory to protect the country’s thinning supply of clean water.
A 2017 Ministry of Agriculture study found 68 percent of the country’s surface water sources are contaminated. None of the 117 water sites surveyed were suitable for drinking, and only 10 percent were safe for irrigating agriculture.
According to 2005 data, 68 percent of water extracted in El Salvador went to agriculture, 22 percent to service municipalities and 10 percent to industrial uses.
In 2016, the government declared its first-ever drought “emergency,” sounding the alarm for more crises to come with climate change in the country nestled in Central America’s so-called dry corridor. El Salvador’s severe deforestation and land degradation also are expected to exacerbate drought conditions and accelerate climate impacts, including increased water stress.
Contrary to ARENA and ANEP’s claims, Ramirez, the student activist, fears losing the battle over water could mean people could end up “dying of thirst” in the future.
“They say there is an abundance of water, there’s a surplus of water. It’s true there is a surplus of contaminated water. But we need to defend drinking water — it already doesn’t reach everyone,” she said. “We are not going to allow a vital resource for human beings to be privatized.”
“Systematic Failure of Privatization”
El Salvador’s water debate, stretching back more than a decade, is far from an isolated case in a global tide of privatization.
In 1999 and 2000, Bolivia’s Cochabamba Water Wars laid bare that water privatization schemes promoted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a condition for financing for resource-strapped countries can be starkly at odds with the needs and desires of the poor families who would be affected by the policies.
A 2003 report by Public Citizen assessing case studies in cities from Atlanta, Georgia, to Manila, Philippines, argued that water privatization has amounted to a “global social experiment” resulting in increased water rates, public health risks, weak regulation, environmental pollution, social turmoil and other problems.
In the United States, Food and Water Watch has calculated that privatized water costs, on average per household, 59 percent more than public utilities.
The most extreme cases of the privatization doctrine took hold in Chile and the United Kingdom, where governments sold off the water infrastructure to the private sector.
More common has been a form of privatization couched in the softer rhetoric of public-private partnerships that hand over partial control to corporations through concessions, leases or management power — like El Salvador’s bill proposes.
Though major international institutions still favor injecting private financing as a quick fix for water woes, the privatization consensus also faces growing blowback.
A 2017 report by the Transnational Institute documented 267 cases of cities and communities around the globe that have taken back control of privatized water services, a process researchers call “remunicipalization.”
According to Transnational Institute researcher Satoko Kishimoto, remunicipalization is “challenging the current mainstream policies” on water regulation.
In a phone interview from Japan, Kishimoto said the remunicipalization trend — which has sped up in recent years despite major legal, political and financial challenges involved in the process — could start to “change the tide” in water debates by highlighting the “systematic failure of privatization.”
With global water demand expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030 and scarcity set to increasingly drive migration and civil conflict, effective water management remains an urgent priority worldwide.
Kishimoto suggested remunicipalization cases could serve as a warning to avoid privatization in the first place. But she also stressed that transparency is key to make public water regulation effective and efficient.
“Democratization of public water — that’s the direction that politicians have to put energy [into] rather than privatization,” she said. “Because privatization is much, much too risky and after all, gets expensive.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.