Salvadorans Fight Privatized ‘Agua Apocalyse’

Kari Lydersen August 21, 2009

People wait to fill up bottles of water at the Bendicion de Dios slum, east of San Salvador, in March 2009.

El Sal­vador is a lush, green coun­try that gets three times the world’s aver­age rain­fall. But only 60 per­cent of Sal­vado­rans have water in their home.

Water pri­va­ti­za­tion was the neolib­er­al answer to a cor­rupt and faulty pub­lic water sys­tem, which the water work­ers union charged was inten­tion­al­ly dri­ven into the ground to bol­ster the case for privatization.

As in oth­er coun­tries, water pri­va­ti­za­tion and decen­tral­iza­tion, begin­ning in the late 1990s, actu­al­ly meant more peo­ple los­ing water ser­vice, union mem­bers and oth­er work­ers los­ing jobs and peo­ple fight­ing back for the right to a com­mon good essen­tial to life itself. 

In the doc­u­men­tary Until The Last Drop: Tales from El Salvador‘s Agua Apoc­a­lypse, released ear­li­er this year, film­mak­er Jason Wal­lach explores the Sal­vado­ran water cri­sis and the role of the pow­er­ful water work­ers union in the fight, where he seeks to dis­cov­er how water can become so con­tentious in a place where there’s so much of it.” 

For a clip from the doc­u­men­tary, go here.

With pri­va­ti­za­tion, union lead­ers point out, many sew­er and water work­ers have lost their jobs. (Jobs where a usu­al day’s work includes fish­ing a pair of under­wear drip­ping with sludge from a backed-up sew­er, as work­ers did while Wallach’s cam­era was rolling).

Back in 1998, the Inter­amer­i­can Devel­op­ment Bank loaned the coun­try mil­lions for water improve­ments, with the require­ment that it move toward pri­va­ti­za­tion of its water sys­tems. Over the next decade the water and sew­er work­ers union, SETA, alleged that munic­i­pal lead­ers who pushed back against the plan were then denied repairs on their state-run sys­tems by the cor­rupt cen­tral bureau­cra­cy, mean­ing their water ser­vice would suf­fer and pub­lic dis­en­chant­ment with the pub­lic ser­vice would grow. 

In the town of Altavista, the munic­i­pal water sup­ply was shut off for eight days in one month. A woman named Julia described to Wal­lach how she paid $9 a day – more than her dai­ly income – to buy water when the taps weren’t run­ning, just to keep her pupuse­ria in business. 

Wal­lach points his lens at a vari­ety of cul­prits in the low-inten­si­ty water war that gripped El Sal­vador – cul­prits both malev­o­lent and well-mean­ing, like the inter­na­tion­al aid groups who jet into towns to set up wells, but don’t leave the com­mu­ni­ty with the finances, tech­nol­o­gy or train­ing to keep the sys­tems going. 

Wal­lach also meets a young engi­neer who insti­tut­ed a water sys­tem in the town of El Pol­vo, a seem­ing­ly altru­is­tic act – until he start­ed cut­ting people’s water off, includ­ing his own aunt, when they got too far behind on water pay­ments because of remit­tances com­ing late from the U.S.

After 10 years with fund­ing from the Inter­amer­i­can Devel­op­ment Bank, the Sal­vado­ran gov­ern­ment had still failed to draft a law reg­u­lat­ing the pri­vate providers, essen­tial­ly putting res­i­dents at the mer­cy of the 1,500-some for-prof­it water com­pa­nies which sprung up to take advan­tage of the situation. 

Peo­ple have been fight­ing back; unions, con­sumer groups and indi­vid­u­als have marched and blocked roads demand­ing water be re-nation­al­ized and decen­tral­ized. Wal­lach doc­u­ments the efforts of towns to build their own water sys­tems. An old woman gets up at 2 a.m. to haul bags of sand to the cement-mix­ing com­pa­ny to help build her community’s water infrastructure. 

Sweat equi­ty,” Wal­lach says. Anoth­er rea­son peo­ple say they deserve a say in how the water sys­tem is run – they built it.” 

In one town, res­i­dents kicked out the cor­rupt water man­age­ment board and elect­ed their own, block­ing a road and occu­py­ing the water plant demand­ing the may­or rec­og­nize the new water board. 

Now peo­ple are wait­ing to see how things will be dif­fer­ent, water-wise, under the left­ist FMLN gov­ern­ment of Car­los Mauri­cio Funes, who won the recent elec­tion and took office June 1

Every human being deserves water for the sim­ple rea­son that they are alive,” envi­ron­men­tal­ist Angel Ibar­ra told Wal­lach. Water, like air, is a fun­da­men­tal part of our existence.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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