Climate Strike à la Salvadoreñ@: Sin Agua no hay Futura
#HumanRights #Eau #Environment | The Global Climate Strike mobilized thousands of students, environmentalists, and citizens across the world. From 20 – 27 September, activist groups organized marches, workshops, and activities to raise awareness and demand action from our “world leaders”, now! As part of the global activities, ADES and UNES participated in the March “Sin Agua no hay Futura” (Without water, there is no future) organized by the Alliance Against the Privatization of Water in San Salvador on 26th September. And it led to a whole lot of conversations and research about climate change, water, and mining in El Salvador (I’m warning you, this time it’s a long one…)
Together we march
On 26th September, at 4:30 in the morning, about 30 people from Santa Marta boarded the bus to San Salvador, mainly women, children and elder people. After a quick stop to eat pupusas for breakfast, we arrived at around 09:15 at the Monumento del Salvador del Mundo where other organisations had already assembled and the speeches were ongoing.
The key messages:
Water is a human right, not a privilege.
The UN recognizes it as such since 2010.
It belongs to the people and the communities, and not (multinational) corporations.
In the past, policies have historically benefitted industrial plantations, luxury housing projects (which have their own water system), or bottling corporations (hello coca cola!).
After the first declarations, the procession slowly moved to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), which is the entity accountable for coordinating and preparing environmental policy, including climate change adaptation policies. Incidentally, the same building also houses the Salvadoran Institute for Agricultural Transformation. During the hour-long march, community leaders continue to explain the reasons for the strike, hand out flyers to bystanders, and the protesters chant “El Agua no se vende, se cuida y se defiende!”. The demonstration ends with a breathtaking (literally) long and loud “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalerta, alerta, alerta que camina, la lucha por el agua en América Latina!"
Climate change = water scarcity in El Salvador
So you might ask, why is a protest for the right of water/against its privatization linked to the Global Climate Strike? Is it just an excuse to protest and point fingers at the government? It’s definitely a great “opportunity” for environmentalists, but let’s also look at the Salvadoran context.
Within Central America, El Salvador is considered the most water-stressed country. Running through Central America is the Dry Corridor – a belt characterized by recurrent droughts and floods, said to increase with climate change.
After poverty and unemployment, agricultural losses due to drought and other events is already a leading cause of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, according to the World Food Programme. For the future, we can expect a reduction in surface water, groundwater recharge rates, flow from springs, and an increase in irrigation – resulting in additional stress to water availability.
While unrelated to climate change, to top if off, 90% of the surface water is contaminated due to untreated discharge of domestic, agricultural and industrial water runoff.
To summarize: climate change in El Salvador is and will be felt primarily through water stress and extreme weather events. The people that will be feeling it most are small farmers and people living in poverty.
Water laws: Service provision vs regulatory power
As you might remember from Michel’s post, this was probably the 384th march organized on the topic. Nobodies counting, but considering the organisations have been advocating for water rights since at least the early 2000s and the proposed “General Water Law” has been under discussion since 2006, that random number might actually be true.
El Salvador is making progress in ensuring the human right to water – it's actually the country with the fastest improvements in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) indicators. 86% of the population have access to safe drinking water and 97% of the population have access to at least a basic water source. Water equity (access for all) is still an issue, with great differences in rural/urban or rich/poor areas. For example, 30% of the population receives its water through “Juntas de Agua” – water systems that have been built and are operated by the communities themselves. Financial help was often provided for the installation, but most of the work related to running the service and maintaining it is done without pay by the community (the only paid post is cleaning the water tanks - probably one of the few cleaning jobs that is mostly done by men). Despite this, the cost of water from the community-run Juntas is often higher than in cities, where the public water supply system is subsidized. All this is about service provision.
The dispute that has been ongoing for over 20 years is about regulation, which is currently very poor in El Salvador (hence the overuse and contamination of resources). But we aren’t even at the point yet of drafting the regulations. The discussions have stalled on the question of WHO regulates/who gets a seat on the National Water Board: the government (following the logic of water as a human right and public good, thus the responsibility of the government) or private sector representatives (which some argue would provide the services more efficiently than the government). The civil society argues that, if the private sector gets to regulate itself, it is basically a privatization of water as their track record shows no indication of responsible water stewardship.
El Salvador is not the only country fighting the privatization of water. Just google “Water wars” and you’ll find examples and documentaries from all over the world where water sources have been commodified, water systems have been bought, and governments have dried out lakes and built dams in the name of economic development. While most of those reports may date back a decade and we do (sometimes) learn from our mistakes, what they describe continues to be a reality in too many countries.
Mining, Water and the defence of human rights
So, you might ask yourselves why ADES bussed all these people to San Salvador? ADES has various different projects - mainly related to agroecology - that support climate change adaptation and also works closely with "Juntas de Agua" in the communities, providing them technical support, reforestations projects around water sources, and soil improvement.
However, in this case, it's rather their past actions that put them front and centre:
ADES has a longstanding history in the defense of a clean and safe environment as a human right – and in mobilizing against corporate interests.
One of the reasons for their involvement is simply geography: Cabañas, one of the poorest departments of the country, is sitting on mountains of gold. And the communities prefer to keep it that way. Since 2005, the Mesa (The National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador, or “Mesa Nacional Frente a la Mineria Metalica”) has been collecting information, organizing affected communities, and advocating for a mining ban in the country.
After countless mobilizations, community hearings, media campaigns, meetings with politicians, and death threats towards environmental activists (unfortunately not only threats...), this was finally achieved a decade later, in 2016, when El Salvador became the first country to prohibit metal mining (Costa Rica prohibited open-pit mining in 2010). The international news-outlets quoted a member of the national assembly saying:
“Today , water won out over gold”.
All of the Mesa's work was based on a (first) environmental impact study, which found that the mining operations would endanger the availability and quality of local water sources, including the Rio Lempa, the most important river in the country. In a 2017 interview, the president of Mesa (who is also the president of ADES) explained: “We are advocating specifically for the prohibition of all open-pit mining, the sealing off of all contaminated areas and for restoration of the effected environment. In addition, artisanal minors, locals who mined independently for gold, should be given new job training. MESA is also advocating for water protection laws to protect the vulnerable water basins.”
The final push in getting the law approved came – indirectly – from the mining company itself: While the law was still in discussion, Pacific Rim sued El Salvador for withholding the permits to mine the gold after they had invested 77 million dollars in explorative mining. They sued El Salvador for 250 million USD in the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The court ruled in favour of El Salvador, and shortly after, El Salvadors politicians prohibited the mining of metals.
The Mesa continues to be active as they fear the legislation can be overthrown easily by the new government, that – despite UN-selfies and constant tweets by the president – remains silent about their plans on the environmental front.
Let's keep shouting and writing slogans on pizza boxes
So while water is the key issue in El Salvador related to climate change, I think community organisation and mobilisation (even if it is one bus at a time) is a huge part of the solution. Cynics might say that all this chanting on the streets isn't going to change anything, we're being naive, David against Goliath, money rules the world, get a real job - or other arguments we've all heard before.
But (obviously ;)) I disagree: For one, going to the street shows activists that are fighting for our rights that we support them and are grateful for the decades they spend repeating the same message in different ways, and "please don't get discouraged, we need you!". It legitimizes the work of countless civil society organisations and gives new wind to politicians that are trying to change something. It invites journalists to learn about and report on these topics, and it might even spark new research ideas for evidence-based decisions. So I do think that making noise and making a fuss and disturbing traffic also has its place in changing our society.
The human right for water wasn't suggested by a government - it was demanded by screaming crowds.
Some randomly selected resources:
- Beautiful Report on Water access in El Salvador by National Geographic (with much better photography than ours ;))
- Video on How El Salvador is Creating Climate Refugees
- IFPRI Report on the Impact of Climate Chance on Agricultural Productivity in Central America
- Interview with Vidalina, president of ADES and Mesa, from 2017