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.
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 communique 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 an investigative reporter and author, whose work focuses climate change, environmental sustainability and greenwashing. She was a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.