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Salvadorans Fight Privatized ‘Agua Apocalyse’

Kari Lydersen

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

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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.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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