An estimated ten thousand people hailing from different parts of the country marched through the streets of San Salvador today to demand that the Environment and Climate Change commission of the Legislative Assembly resume discussions on a General Water Law for El Salvador.

The march is the culmination a series of direct actions that environmental organizations and communities affected by water scarcity in El Salvador have led since the beginning of July, after negotiations to approve the law reached a stalemate.

The deadlock is caused by fundamental ideological differences from the political parties that make up the commission claims Samuel Ventura, an activist with ACUA , an organization promoting the right to water in the department of La Libertad.

“One the one hand, the left leaning FMLN supports aspects of a bill proposed by social organizations which call for public administration and for prioritizing the public use of scarce water resources of the country”; on the other hand, the right wing ARENA party has opposed those principles and has “instead advocated for the involvement of the private sector in the administration and regulation of the water supply” explained Ventura in a community organizing meeting back in July.

The first attempt to legislate the use of water in El Salvador was introduced in 2006 by the Foro de Agua, a coalition of environmental and social organizations that submitted a draft bill to the National Legislative Assembly containing a legislative framework to publicly manage the scarce water resources in the country.

Government officials at the time dismissed the bill as unnecessary claiming the use of water use was already regulated by different government institutions including the Ministry of the Environment, MARN and the autonomous water administration agency ANDA.    

The idea of a general water law received a boost in 2010 after the United Nations issued a resolution on the right to water. Following the resolution and the UN call for member states to “provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all”, members for the Water Forum introduced a new proposal to reflect the principles established by the UN.  

In March 2012, the executive branch of the government introduced its own Water Legislation through the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, MARN. The bill was welcomed by social organizations who participated widely in a public consultation process led by the legislative Commission on the Environment and Climate Change.

In December 2012, members of the commission announced that they had begun discussions on the new law and were hoping to have the law approved before the August summer vacations, however that optimism was overshadowed by the lead member of the ARENA party at the commission, Vicente Menjivar, who publicly declared that his party was not “interested in negotiating a Water Law”.

Although Menjivar’s attitude set the tone for the negotiations that followed, more than ninety articles were discussed and approved between January and June 2013, contentious articles of the law were simply left aside for future negotiations.

In the meantime, pro-business groups actively organized their supporters to promote their own vision of a water law which includes heavy involvement of the private sector in the administration of water through an organization called the Roundatable on Water, founded in 2012 by the National Association of the Private Enterprise ANEP and the Foundation for the Development of El Salvador FUSADES .

Originally the Roundtable on Water gained support from highly regarded institutions like the Central American University-UCA, and the Catholic charity Caritas; but they soon left the group as they realised the real intention of pro-business groups that conformed the group was to promote the privatization of water.

In June 2013 the ARENA party introduced to a new proposal for a Water Law with the support of pro-business organizations and demanded that negotiations start once again from the beginning, since then there has been no activity at the Environment and Climate Change Commission.  

It was this move by the ARENA party that made social movement organizations realise that they needed to intensify their mobilizations to pressure not only elected members of the legislative assembly but also key stake holders in the business sector who are invested in having discussions stalled at the assembly.

During the month of July actions by civil society organizations targeted the offices of ANEP, a controversial bottling plant expected to drain millions of liters of underground water daily in the city of Nejapa, and road closures in various locations, including the town of San Luis Talpa where chemicals from industrial cotton plantations have contaminated the water supply of the community.  

The key to break the impasse may be in the hands of GANA, the third largest party at the legislative assembly, as none of the main parties can make enough votes to pass legislation on their own.

Francis Sablah, member of GANA and president of the Environment and Climate Change Commission has shown a genuine interest in the precarious situation of water in El Salvador. In a speech he delivered in front of the legislative assembly in front of the large crowd who had asembled at the doorsteps after the August 22 march, he committed to “continue to work with all political parties to ensure a law is passed promptly”.

However, the fact that he is personally interested in passing a new law does not guarantee his party with close rank and vote with him at a legislative vote. Since splitting from the right wing party ARENA and forming their own faction, members of GANA have shown no particular party discipline when it comes to voting and their vote can go either way depending on the issue and the particular interest of each member.

When the turn of Lourdes Palacios, leading member of FMLN sitting at commission, came, she explained that “11 votes is what is stopping the water legislation from becoming a reality”, implying that her party has 31 seats, plus the one from Francis Sablah; however 43 votes are needed to be able to pass new legislation at the assembly.

“How is it possible that 11 people are holding hostage the hopes of an entire nation?” asked father Tilo Sanchez a fiery speaker and veteran of many social movements that have sprung up in El Salvador since the 70s, “this is not a democracy” he continued “it is a public disgrace”