This Community Built a Democratically Controlled Water System. Now They Have To Defend It.

Across El Salvador, water rights are under threat from corrupt politicians and corporations.

Christine MacDonald January 29, 2019

Tomás Zúñiga (L), pictured with his wife Fredisvina, is vice president of the body that runs the community water system in Tacuba, El Salvador. (Tania Moreno/Oxfam)

Sit­ting in sag­ging plas­tic lawn chairs at their family’s mod­est farm­house, Tomás Zúni­ga and his wife, Fre­disv­ina, remem­ber build­ing their community’s water sys­tem two decades ago, a sys­tem that sup­plies thou­sands of local res­i­dents in the munic­i­pal­i­ty of Tacu­ba in south­west­ern El Salvador.

[Tacuba is] emblematic of the fight for justice in an unequal world.

Tomás Zúni­ga, a rail-thin campesino with a pen­cil mus­tache and white cow­boy hat, says it was a mir­a­cle from God” in a 2018 online video pro­duced by the inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an group Oxfam and the Sal­vado­ran mag­a­zine FOCOS. In the peri­od of one to five months, water was arriv­ing in places where we had nev­er known tap water before.”

But the months of con­struc­tion through dense jun­gle ter­rain, sup­port­ed by $1.7 mil­lion from inter­na­tion­al aid groups, would prove only the begin­ning of their tri­als. In El Sal­vador, impov­er­ished peas­ants increas­ing­ly find them­selves in con­flict over water with the likes of Coca-Cola, water-inten­sive export agri­cul­ture, upscale res­i­den­tial devel­op­ments, and, as in Tacu­ba, cor­rupt local governments.

In 2007, Tacuba’s then-may­or, Joel Ramírez Acos­ta of the right-wing Nation­al­ist Repub­li­can Alliance par­ty (ARE­NA), seized con­trol of the com­mu­ni­ty water sys­tem, installing new valves that allowed him to redi­rect water to neigh­bor­hoods that sup­port­ed him and ARE­NA. Accord­ing to local res­i­dents, he reduced water access while dou­bling water fees to the sev­en com­mu­ni­ties that had built the sys­tem. In 2016, police arrest­ed Zúni­ga and the rest of the water system’s demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed lead­ers on charges of steal­ing the water from the sys­tem they had built.

[Tacu­ba is] emblem­at­ic of the fight for jus­tice in an unequal world,” says Karen Ramírez, who leads com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing around water issues for the Sal­vado­ran human­i­tar­i­an group Aso­ciación Pro Vida. It is the worst case we’ve seen.”

Thanks to local and inter­na­tion­al pres­sure, the men were released after a week in jail. Now, near­ly two years lat­er (and more than a decade after the sys­tem was seized), Tacu­ba res­i­dents are still fight­ing to regain own­er­ship. Even if they suc­ceed, nation­al devel­op­ments could over­turn any victory.

In spring 2018, ARE­NA retook con­trol of the country’s nation­al assem­bly and intro­duced a bill that would trans­fer water man­age­ment to the pri­vate sec­tor. Social jus­tice groups, the left-wing Farabun­do Martí Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front par­ty and the Roman Catholic Church denounced the bill, argu­ing that it would put water beyond the reach of poor Salvadorans.

After it was intro­duced in June 2018, the pro­pos­al sparked mas­sive street protests, and the country’s Roman Catholic Epis­co­pal Con­fer­ence sent a com­mu­niqué to the Vat­i­can, pledg­ing, We will not per­mit the poor to die of thirst.”

ARE­NA denies the law would pri­va­tize” water. The World Bank, which activists in El Sal­vador and else­where accuse of pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ments to pri­va­tize as a con­di­tion on its loans, denies this, pre­fer­ring to dis­cuss pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships” (PPPs).

Michael Tiboris, a water fel­low at the Chica­go Coun­cil on Glob­al Affairs, says when it comes to water the dif­fer­ence is seman­tic: The vast major­i­ty of so-called pri­va­tized water sys­tems have always been PPPs, since pri­vate com­pa­nies rarely build the cost­ly infra­struc­ture. What pri­vate com­pa­nies want is to man­age sys­tems that have already been built, because you can make mon­ey on that,” he says.

The pro­posed water law would cre­ate a gov­ern­ing board to reg­u­late water access. ARENA’s crit­ics argue that the par­ty will stack the board with mem­bers who would do the bid­ding of the party’s cor­po­rate donors, like La Con­stan­cia, a Coca-Cola bot­tling part­ner” that has faced mas­sive protests against its plan to expand its bot­tling plant — and thus its water use — in Nejapa, a munic­i­pal­i­ty out­side San Salvador.

Social move­ments fear that water pri­va­ti­za­tion will lead to more sit­u­a­tions like the one in Tacu­ba, where impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties end up locked in mul­ti­year strug­gles with no end in sight.

To be an advo­cate or defend­er of the right to water, as we’re doing, costs dear­ly,” Fre­disv­ina de Zúni­ga says in the 2018 Oxfam inter­view. You have to go through dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions like those that have hap­pened to us.”

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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