The current debate in El Salvador with respect to delivery of potable drinking water to all of its citizens, is the debate over whether or not water should be delivered by a government agency or a private contractor. Should the current government water administration, known by its acronym ANDA, be eliminated and replaced with contracts allowing private sector companies to be responsible for the distribution and sale of water?
The ARENA government, with its free market economic approach, wants to privatize water delivery:
According to the President of the national water agency, Cesár Funes, a water sector reform proposal will be introduced early next year. Under the proposal his agency, ANDA, would be downsized in favor of a newly created national water commission, to be called CONAGUA, which would establish a three-person panel to regulate water rates. Representation on that panel, according to the proposal, would come from the President, the Economy Ministry, and the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP, in Spanish) , a lobby of El Salvador’s most influential businessmen.
That provision had protesters piqued.... "We want to know why ANEP has representation and we, the people, don’t. Water should not be treated as merchandise," said Francisco Morán of ACAPb, Association of Communities Affected by the Northern Highway.Source
The privatization path is backed by organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, and opposed by SETA, the union for ANDA workers responsible for maintaining the water system.
SETA workers say that President Tony Saca is pushing a privatization proposal to comply with requirements couched in a 1998 loan from the Interamerican Development Bank (IADB). The loan provided money to “decentralize” ANDA, set up smaller municipal water companies and open them to public-private concessions. So far, 19 municipalities, representing 18,000 household water connections, are voluntarily experimenting with a variety of concession formats, which contract out water line maintenance and distribution to private companies.
SETA workers argue that concessions are stepping stone to full privatization. “The government is exacting an institutional sacking of ANDA to justify the need for concessions,” says Wilfredo Romero, General Secretary at SETA. He notes that ANDA’s 2006 budget is 15% lower than 2005. Funding is lower than any time in the 2000’s—an amazing fact considering that one-third of the country lacks water in the home.
According to the right-wing daily La Prensa Graphica (12/27/2005), the majority of this year’s cut—$13.3 million—came from the “investment” section of ANDA’s budget, a 37% slash from the 2005 level.(Source)
Various civil society organizations have been organizing protests against privatization and pushing their own legislation to require the government to continue to handle water distribution:
Hundreds of anti-water privatization activists gathered outside El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly this week to back legislation that would “increase [water] coverage, quality and sustainability and guarantee access… for low income families.” They presented a new proposal entitled “The Potable Water and Sewage Sub-sector Law” for legislative approval. The alternative proposal was developed by a number of civil society organizations in close consultation with communities struggling for access to clean water.
“This country has among the lowest levels of potable water coverage in Latin America. There is a serious water quality problem, constant shortages and what’s more, there are threats of water privatization. That’s why we decided to work in a collaborative way toward a Potable Water Law. It closes all doors to privatization,” said Armando Flores of the Consumer Defense Center.
Catholic-based Cáritas, the environmental group UNES, ASTAC and 17 other groups contributed to the development of the proposal.(Source)
At issue, they say, is state versus corporate control of a vital resource:
The UNES and Caritas proposal advocates for state—not corporate control of water, declaring, "The state should assume principle responsibility [for water], including financial responsibility, since water should not be converted into merchandise, or subjected to workings of the market."
The UNES/CARITAS plan places watershed care at the center of any water reform in El Salvador and calls for a holistic conservation plan aimed protecting rivers, aquifer and springs. It also calls for a government-regulated rate scale, which charges corporate customers at higher rates than households.(Source)
As I will discuss in coming days, both approaches have positives and negatives.