The human right to water: Salvadoran NGOs and a global campaign

    Should water be legally recognised as a human right? Campaigners around the world from El Salvador to Indonesia say yes

    Meera Karunananthan | Wednesday 25 March 2015 12.19 GMT
    Meera Karunananthan is international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project. Follow @meerakar on Twitter.

    “We saw a group of strangers and asked what they were doing. When they said they were looking for mines, we told them naively that there were no landmines here,” says Felipe Tobar, the mayor of San Jose Las Flores.

    This was his community’s first encounter with Aurora Mineral Resource Group, a large mining company that began exploration in the Salvadoran town in 2005. After learning that the government had permitted exploration for a gold mine without their consultation, the communities were anxious to protect their water sources from the mines. In Latin America’s most water-scarce country, 98% of fresh water is contaminated; metal mining has long been one of the contributing factors.

    The villagers took matters into their own hands. They took away the markings that the prospectors had been putting into place and rebuffed company representatives. “They sent public relations people to speak to us, but each time they were escorted out by dozens of community members and eventually the company gave up,” says Tobar. For this community, as for many others in El Salvador, the need to protect water resources was far more vital than any employment that the mine might offer.

    In terms of access to water, El Salvador is the third most unequal country in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a 2010 report by the UN. But now a powerful coalition of NGOs and community groups is attempting to get access to water enshrined in law as a human right. El Foro del Agua, a water coalition of more than 100 organisations and community groups, is calling for a national ban on metal mining, a constitutional amendment recognising the human right to water, and a general water law that would legally establish social control of water resources and services. Through consultation and research with communities on the front line of the water struggle, these strategies are aimed, in part, at shifting the power dynamics to strengthen the sovereignty of the Salvadoran people to determine their own freshwater future.

    Binding national laws to protect community water rights would help other local communities that have been less successful in their struggles to protect water from harmful developments. It is no small miracle that environmental strategies developed at the grassroots level have been introduced for debate at the Salvadoran legislature. Yet despite support from the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party, opposition parties defending the interests of transnational corporations have blocked these strategies at the legislative assembly.

    And now a constitutional amendment for El Salvador to recognise water and food as human rights is set to expire. In 2012, the Salvadoran legislative assembly voted unanimously in favour of the amendment. But Salvadoran law states that a vote for constitutional reform must be supported by two consecutive legislatures – the bill is introduced by one legislature and ratified by the following one. If the amendment is not ratified by the current legislature by 30 April 2015, it becomes void. Even if the new legislature were to reintroduce the bill, it would take another four to six years to ratify.

    If passed, however, the formal recognition of water and food as human rights would provide a strong tool in the struggle to protect water in El Salvador. It would affirm the primacy of local access to water supplies and ecosystem needs over foreign interests. Although the current government has vowed to maintain a de facto moratorium on metal mining that has been in place since 2008, without binding legislation environmental groups fear that this stopgap measure will not provide the long-term water strategy the country needs.

    The human right to water is increasingly serving as a tool for communities throughout the world. In Uruguay, formal recognition of the human right to water and sanitation resulted in the banning of private water and sanitation services. In Indonesia on 24 March, weeks after the constitutional court deemed a World Bank-imposed water law to be anti-constitutional for allowing the privatisation of water, the Central Jakarta District Court annulled a 17-year old private-public-partnership arguing that it violated the human right to water. As in El Salvador, campaigns in Uruguay and Indonesia were led by people’s coalitions.

    “The thousands of people organising to defend water in El Salvador are writing the shared history of the continent,” says Marcela Olivera, coordinator of La Red Vida, a coalition representing groups working on water issues from across the Americas. “They are showing the world that from El Salvador and Mexico to Argentina and Uruguay, we are not only capable of resisting the neoliberal agenda, but also of building concrete alternatives.”

    In the meantime, the communities of San Jose Las Flores and Nueva Trinidad are not taking any chances. They are among a growing number of municipalities in Chalatenango who are declaring themselves as territories free of mining through municipal laws. In Central America, where environmental health and public policy decisions are dominated by the interests of big (primarily Canadian) mining companies, places like Chalatenango show that it is still possible to assert local power and maintain “liberated territories”.

    Meera Karunananthan is international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project and co-author of a new report on El Salvador’s water struggles. Follow @meerakar on Twitter.