Bukele's Water Law: A New Privatizing Strategy?

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On June 18, President Nayib Bukele presented a bill titled the General Law for Water Resources, with the hope that the legislature will discuss and approve it within 90 days. The new proposal effectively annuls more than a decade of debate and consensus with social and environmental organizations who argue that Bukele's proposal would legalize corporate commodification of water resources over human needs. Having fended off a number of privatization schemes over the past fifteen years, the Salvadoran popular movement is concerned that Bukele is trying to use his popularity to pass a bill that looks and sounds similar to the social movement water law but that in reality contains a number of dangerous provisions that would allow corporations to control and damage the country’s fragile water resources.

“What the current legislature, which is dominated by the governing party, New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas), has done is to toss out all the existing legislation that was being worked on within the Environmental and Climate Change Commission, including the General Water Law proposal,” explains Carlos Flores, a representative of the Water Forum (Foro del Agua), a national coalition of environmental, religious and community organizations.

To date, the General Water Law, which had been in discussion for three years in the Environmental Commission, is the only proposal that reflects the demands of social and environmental organizations with regards to defining water as a human right, public management of water resources, and other “non-negotiable” key demands.  Social movement organizations and legislators had already agreed upon at least 111 articles of the bill despite right-wing efforts to incorporate privatizing aspects to the law.

“We pressured previous legislatures to approve the law, but there are profit motives at play, and the corporations and the parties that represent them refused to agree to the article regarding who controls the water, who manages it, and regarding fairness in rates,” which held up the approval process, explains Flores.

After the new legislature took their seats on May 1, 2021, the General Water Law was sent to the archives along with 300 other proposed bills that were under discussion during the previous legislative session.

The coordinator for the Network of Community Environmentalists of El Salvador (RACDES), Zulma Larin, laments that “with this new legislature, there has been no discussion [of the issue]” now that “all the existing proposals having to do with improving quality of life, bettering the environment and human rights, have been sent to the archives.”

“Today in the Legislative Assembly," Larin continues, "everything is done by the Executive; it is the President who brings the proposals and the legislators just raise their hands [in approval]. That’s how things are now in the country.”

Notably, Bukele's proposal “includes almost literally a good portion of what had already been spelled out" in the social movement's proposal, explains Flores, but with one major change: "removing public regulation."

One of the social movement's main critiques of the president’s bill is that it proposes to create a regulatory body made up of government representatives who are handpicked by the president. This model asserts Flores, “absolutely negates the participation of the people in decision-making spaces regarding how the country's water is managed, used and controlled,” which dismantles a large part of what had been agreed upon previously.

Similarly, Flores explains that Bukele's bill promotes the establishment of a model that is both centralized because it would concentrate power in the hands of the president, and vertical, as decisions would go from the autonomous business entity that would function as the decision-making body, to consumers. "In the end," said the environmentalist, "The population will continue to suffer the consequences of an unjust water system that results from the current management model.”

So although the government's proposal takes up some ideas of the social movement's original bill, at its core “it has a privatizing aspect,” explains Flores, that seeks to make money off of water, “not for the people, but for the transnational corporations,”  “As environmental organizations," he continues, "we are in emergency mode trying to make clear where this commercialist focus is."

Another major concern regarding the proposal is that it would authorize water use permits to private sector entities for up to 15 years. Larín points out that “the largest consumers [should not be] given permits to exploit water sources for up to 15 years, with near-automatic renewal." Instead, she continues, "With exception of the local Potable Water Administration Boards, we believe that no permit to private businesses should last longer than five years and that, in order to renew these permits, they should have to demonstrate that they have met requirements and that water resources remain stable at the source or aquifer.”

In this sense, says González, the president's proposal is incoherent without the fundamental aspects demanded by organizations. “It makes no sense to talk about the human right to water and water as a public good and at the same time grant permits [to private entities] to use large quantities of water for 15 to 30 years,” he objected.

According to a report by the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), the country is currently experiencing a major crisis due to a lack of access to drinking water, which primarily affects the most vulnerable populations. This crisis is worsened by the absence of a regulatory policy, including the legislature's decision not to ratify a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the human right to water, and by prioritization of water for industrial and commercial use over human consumption and the sustainability of ecosystems.

In light of this reality, environmental organizations are demanding that the law “have a focus on human rights” and ensure the “active participation of citizens." They are also calling for "a focus on the issue of aquifers so that people can organize in order to protect and defend their local watersheds, forests, and preserve water recharge zones,” states Larín.

Despite the bleak outlook with regard to the new legislature, in mid-June, social and environmental organizations presented a new bill of their own that seeks to take up fundamental aspects of their previous proposal. They have also named five non-negotiable demands with regards to water management: water as a public good; the human right to water and sanitation; public control with effective public participation; sustainable management of watersheds; and a just and equitable financial and economic framework.

But rather than allowing the Environmental and Climate Change Commission to debate the bills, an ad hoc committee has been formed, which, according to Gonzalez, “was formed almost secretively … [and] doesn’t guarantee transparency or accountability in such an important discussion that has to do with a water law.”

The Ad Hoc commission will be composed of seven Nuevas Ideas legislators and four other legislators, one representative from each of the parties GANA, PCN, FMLN, and ARENA, totaling 11 legislators. Dina Argueta, who, along with fellow FMLN legislator Anabel Belloso, has backed the social movement in their core demands,  will join the commission on behalf of the FMLN, though it is unlikely that she will be able to sway decisions towards social movement demands without outside public pressure.

In a press conference on July 14, the Water Forum publicly denounced Bukele’s proposal, saying it would legalize the current water mismanagement in the country, which allows corporations nearly unregulated use, and inequitable access to water resources for communities. The Water Forum is demanding an urgent meeting with the ad-hoc commission as well as calling on them to incorporate key aspects of the General Water Law into the bill to ensure that the already-limited water resources are prioritized for human consumption.

This blog was updated on July 16, 2021.

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