Dirty Water, Dirtier Profits: An Update on El Salvador’s Fight for Clean Water
For nearly two months, the environmental movement, the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party and El Salvador’s leading public water utility workers' union have been calling the Bukele administration to task for its seeming indifference to the foul-tasting, fetid brown water that began abruptly spurting from faucets throughout the capital city of San Salvador in early January. Rather than responding with concern, the Health Minister and the president of the public water utility initially called the situation ‘overblown,’ ultimately resulting in a public apology from the president on their behalf. The situation is still unresolved, provoking widespread and growing outrage from the social movement, civil society organizations, and legislators alike.
Tap water in El Salvador hasn’t been safe to drink for decades due to severe contamination; most Salvadorans either use a filter or buy bottled water. Nonetheless, shortly after taking office, Frederick Benítez, the president of National Aqueduct and Water Supply Administration (ANDA), whom Bukele appointed in June, “attested 100%” that “the quality of water that we provide meets certification with laboratory exams. Here in front of the camera I tell the people that you can drink straight from the tap, there is no problem.” Aside from people’s first-hand knowledge to the contrary, the independent magazine Gatoencerrado fact-checked the declaration as false, given the high concentration of heavy metals in the water.
When water quality began to worsen in early January, appearing brown and smelling unusual to many people, Bukele’s Minister of Health Ana Orellana stunned many in the country when, on January 18, she said the situation could be resolved by simply boiling the water before consuming it. The day before, ANDA president Benítez stated, “a proliferation of algae in [the] Lempa [river] caused this phenomenon” but that “[the water] is not harmful to health.”
On January 21, President Bukele held a press conference to apologize for the inadequate response by his government officials and offered the explanation that algae had entered the nearby Las Pavas water treatment plant, affecting the water of 2.5 million people in the greater San Salvador area. The president stated that they solved the issue by adding copper sulfate into the water to kill the algae. However, this response was deemed inappropriate as copper sulfate is typically used as a pesticide to treat algae blooms, not to treat water for human consumption.
But not everyone was buying the government's explanation. The ANDA Workers' Union (SETA), the largest union at ANDA, challenged the administration’s explanation regarding the source of the contamination, issuing a statement that, “The contamination did not have to do with the proliferation of microalgae, as the authorities have argued. [Rather] there was a political decision to breach the treatment protocol at the Las Pavas Water Treatment Plant and thus supply the population with poor quality water.”
Despite numerous requests from the Legislative Assembly to provide evidence for their claims, the Minister of Health and president of ANDA refused; ultimately, the Legislative Assembly had to subpoena them both. When Benítez finally gave testimony to the legislature nearly a month later, on February 18 and 19, he admitted that “drinking the water was not recommended.”
In a radio interview, FMLN legislator Dina Argueta spoke out against the “attitude of the new government, not only of the minister of health and the president of ANDA, but of all the officials.” Citing the similar refusal of the president of the Port Authority (CEPA) to appear before the Public Works Commission, Argueta described the Bukele administration as “not want[ing] to make transparent their exercise of government before the Salvadorans represented by the legislature.”
Another area of concern was the “contingency plan” that Bukele announced in his January 21 press conference, which amounted to little more than the mass distribution of bottled water. The National Alliance against Water Privatization, a coalition of environmental, faith, labor and community organization, denounced the government’s decision to purchase and distribute bottled water as a solution to the crisis, given that bottled water companies already profit from the poor quality of water in El Salvador and bear responsibility for El Salvador’s water scarcity in the first place
Bukele also used the opportunity to reiterate his support for the construction of a water treatment plant at Lake Ilopango, deeming it necessary given severe water scarcity, despite numerous studies concluding that the water at the lake is unsuitable for human use, even after treatment. Numerous outlets have reported that Bukele is in talks with China to finance construction of the plant as part of a major infrastructure investment plan.
The current crisis in San Salvador comes in the midst of a polemic national debate about the future of El Salvador's fragile water resources - and who will manage it. In 2018, the right-wing parties introduced legislation to the Environment and Climate Change Commission that would have created a national water regulation agency where the majority of decision-making seats would be held by the private sector. The bill was a direct contrast to a General Water law that the environmental movement and the FMLN have been pushing since 2012 which would enshrine public management of water and the human right to water into law.
The Water Forum, a coalition of local, environmental and religious groups, has expressed concern that the recent - and dramatic - deterioration in water quality could be “a strategy to represent public management as inefficient, [since it] happened the same week that the General Water Law came up for debate in the Legislative Assembly; that is, if people hear about public water management and are experiencing an ordeal with ANDA, they might be inclined to support the privatization of water.”
Indeed, as all of this was unfolding, the right-wing parties began debate on a new regulatory framework in the Environmental Commission. As the National Alliance Against the Privatization of Water explained, “people are bound to get suspicious when, in the midst of a crisis, the Bukele administration, bottled water companies, the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce (ANEP), the sugarcane industry, real estate developers and the right-wing president of the Environment Commission Martha Evelyn Batres decide to hurriedly pass a law regarding the regulation of water.”
Verónica Marroquín, a member of the FMLN political committee, similarly expressed, “We are totally against privatization. We also have our questions regarding this crisis, because the Right uses cases like these to make their arguments to put the issue [of privatization] into discussion again.”
Towards the end of January, Bukele urged his cabinet to create a “National Water Plan” in which “we solve the water issue in all its facets.” However, Bukele’s national budget for 2020, which the right-wing majority legislature approved in December 2019 without the votes of the FMLN, cut ANDA’s funding by $7.5 million compared to 2019, the FMLN’s last year in the presidency. Notably, ANDA’s funding for Environmental Sanitation and Water Security was cut by 65%.
Although has Bukele apologized for the delay in addressing the crisis, his repeated emphasis on inviting private sector investment to El Salvador, cuts in funding to public institutions like ANDA, and promotion of environmentally-risky infrastructure projects suggest that crises like this will continue to worsen in the months and years to come.