Interviewee: Carlos Flores of the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: UNES office, San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 30 July 2010
Martin Mowforth (MM): I have more specific questions about this topic, with reference to Coca Cola and the use of the Lempa river, but first I would like you to tell me your thoughts about the water supply in this country.
Carlos Flores (CF): Perhaps it is best to begin by saying that the problem of privatisation in El Salvador is present, lying dormant, but it is not the main problem. Already, water is in crisis and still supply systems are not privatised. I am not saying that they will improve if they are privatised, nor that the actual scheme is the best that there is to manage the water.
MM: But still there is a crisis?
CF: Yes, there is. The water problem in El Salvador is the main socio-environmental problem; there are conflicts between communities, municipalities, commercial communities, and governmental ministries and communities.
MM: What is ANDA’s role?
CF: ANDA is an autonomous institution that is responsible for providing the water supply service. ANDA holds part of the responsibility for the water problem in this country. The law of creation says that ANDAs role is to supply water to all citizens and provide systems of sanitation. We must check whether this has been achieved or not, this is a test that we must do. This is enough analysis on this matter.
MM: With regard to water supply in the capital area, what is the current status of water quality?
CF: I agree with ANDA that the water is of good quality.
MM: The ‘quality’ includes more than just the quality of water. I was also thinking of the quality of the service.
CF: The problem of water supply is a complex one. If we focus on San Salvador, access is almost 95% of the capital area. The people that live in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, mainly in the heavily populated and poor areas, have access to a stream, a pipe, but this does not automatically guarantee that they have water. For example, Soyapango, the communities of Ilopango in San Marcos. Almost all of these colonies have access to a pipe, but they have frequently had prolonged water cuts. It is also very common to have a periodic water supply, sometimes once a week. There are communities that have water once every two weeks, and some once a month. Thus, the quality of water service is quite periodic. This is the first element.
The quality of water is not guaranteed. ANDA takes samples at the source, or where it is sent, or where the water arrives and where it is distributed, but we must check the quality of the transport mechanisms, as they are basically pipe systems, which, being quite old (30 or 40 years) leak in parts. So, the problem with systems so obsolete is that they do not guarantee the quality of the water.
When there are long periods without water supply, the problem is that the systems generate a reverse pressure, so that the water goes out instead of into the pipe. When this occurs, the pipes tend to leak and pipes rupture, so anything from earth and organic matter to raw sewage can enter into the water. Thus, the quality of water reaching the family homes could be guaranteed under current conditions.
We are talking about a service that is unprofitable, since we are talking about communities that do not have a regular service. This can be explained and I will try to give a technical explanation, but it is not too technical. Technical in the sense of hydraulic solutions, to seek more wells or to extend the pipes, the problem is that the water nearby, i.e. the aquifer in San Salvador always produces less water. This has forced ANDA to implement different projects, there is one in particular that is called The Pavas Plant (la Planta de las Pavas) that provides San Salvador with almost 40% of the water used, which is a large quantity of water. The water is transported almost 40 kilometres which is very costly for ANDA. And there is a problem, because in San Salvador ANDA produces close to 5 cubic meters per second, and loses almost 50% (2.5 cubic meters). This is a large quantity of resources to lose and it is directly impacting the service that is received by the people that live in the capital. It is not possible to achieve zero leakage, there is no system that is perfect, but we cannot continue maintaining a scheme like the one we have now. This has its origin in a system of neglect, an attitude that has given little importance to water in general and the service of supply and sanitation. This lack of interest is translated into little public investment by the San Salvadorian state in this area. The people that make the decisions are not interested in how to fully resolve the problem, because suddenly a loan is obtained to put a patch on the problem, to make another supply plant or to construct a sporadic sanitation plant. There is not a state policy which tells us or which can send us an increasing or sustained level of investment which would help us to resolve this problem. There is no planning system that they can tell us, well, this pipe is 40 years old, and it has to be changed. This leads to an additional problem – the sewage pipes of San Salvador. The sewage system in San Salvador already is between 40 and 50 years old. This puts us in a very serious position because when we are talking about sewage sanitation, we are talking about sewage pipes of a larger diameter. If these pipes start to fail … The same applies for rain water pipes, because they already have the same life. The problem is that these pipes are beginning to collapse which leads us to the problem that we are facing right now in San Salvador – the appearance of gullies, large-scale holes in the middle of the city, that are becoming more frequent. We dedicate state resources to, literally, cover these holes, without even really planning to make this investment. We should plan it better but we have to plan it now, and still it is not planned. At present we are making a diagnosis to see which pipes should be changed. We are beginning to make the diagnosis, even though we do not have resources reserved. We think that it is necessary to give it our full attention: we talk of leaks in pipes that are obsolete; we talk of the collapse of pipes for sewage and rainwater. This is the system in San Salvador. We are talking about the scarcity or the deepening of water tables, mainly because the aquifer of San Salvador is going down very quickly. This is forcing us to make plans to transfer water from other basins. And thus is San Salvador, the Salvadoran territory is the space where the most users are connected to the supply system and to the sewage system, but in practical terms the concentration of population receives the least water per capita and gives the least treatment of waste water.
MM: Do you know if the water table has been affected by pesticides or residues of any other chemical, fertilizers perhaps?
CF: There are no studies about the quality of the water at this level. At the beginning of this year, as part of World Water Day, the Environmental Minister made an announcement that all of the surface water in El Salvador is contaminated, i.e. there is no safe water in El Salvador, and some water is prohibited, even for bathing. This was the announcement, which was very worrying. I could give indicators that could tell us that there are problems with sewage.
MM: I have been told that there is a study by the university, but also by UNES about water pollution.
CF: No, we haven’t done a study on pollution. But there is a study about the quality of El Salvadoran water by the Ministry of the Environment. In El Salvador, there is the capacity for sewage treatment, although only for 14% of sewage, but what really is purified is 10% of the water. This indicates that there are problems with sewage. In the case of the industries it is more difficult, because there are more or less 1,600 companies in El Salvador, and if we manage to get 300 to treat their sewage then that it good enough. So, we are very far from achieving the treatment of sewage and the control of sewage.
In the case of pesticides, in El Salvador prohibited pesticides are still sold. This can be taken as an indicator of what we can find. There are many water boards – the water board is a community organisation that manages a supply system – that are faced with doing the chemical analysis of water parameters that are found to be very high in lead, boron, cadmium. These chemicals appear suddenly, and just as suddenly have disappeared from the water supply. It is not a systematic analysis but we receive these types of complaints and we see them as precise indicators of what we can find. In this country, this type of study is very expensive, they could be done by the Ministry of the Environment, but they are not.
MM: As for the access to drinking water in rural areas, could you give me some sources of data for this, apart from the United Nations?
CF: We recently did an investigation, and in March we held the second regional meeting for organisations that work in the field of water, it is called Towards the construction of a new public institution for the management of water and sanitation. So, we have an investigation in El Salvador which highlights the problems of water in terms of supply. Broadly, this is a form of community management of water in El Salvador which is supplying close to 19% of the population. This shows that there is a serious problem in this country, because ANDA, which is the public institution that is ordered by law to do this, is supplying only 40% of the Salvadoran population with its supply service. The remainder are supplied by water management boards, between municipalities and a system known as the self-sufficiency system, which is a system run by construction companies that implement water supply systems to make their own projects seem attractive.
MM: This type of exchange is like a planning benefit because the company can have permission to do what it wants to do, and in exchange they supply water to a percentage of houses.
CF: Exactly. And there emerges a problem. The problem is that legally they are only taking part, the supply systems are only directly regulated by ANDA, legally. There are the municipalities, the water boards and there are the self-sufficient systems that would be the will of God. In the case of the water board systems, it is the people from rural communities, who are very poor, that often have to pay five or six times more than they would pay for urban systems, such as the one supplied by ANDA. It is like a paradox, because ANDA has a water subsidy, which applies to users, which until recently were all users of ANDA, including the people that have the means to pay and that have had a great capacity for squandering water. So, we have ended up subsidising the middle class and rich people, and we have been forcing people to pay, first the bill, but after the bill, for the cost of the construction of the supply system.
When we speak of supply we leave the most profound issue that the supply, the final supply that indicates to us how the state can break its promises, … (missing transcription) … the obligation to guarantee the right to water and committing injustices, like the issue of the subsidies. But the water problem in El Salvador is much more severe than the supply, because the water problem is expressed in drought, floods and landslides. In El Salvador we go from periods of drought to flooding. This has, without any doubt, to do with the effects of climate change, which is an external phenomenon.
Undoubtedly, there is another important component here which is the development model that has been implemented in this country and the rest of this region, which makes us more vulnerable to these impacts. So, the water problem that I mentioned is drought, flooding, pollution and water shortages. We see it as it is, but there are underlying structural causes.
MM: You can also link the problem to deforestation during the years of the war and afterwards?
CF: It is the historic process of the implementation of different types of agro-export models, of the implementation of monocultures. The 700’s began with the cultivation of indigo, and for this, crops were destroyed to the quantity of … (missing translation) … Deforestation has its origin in this: indigo, coffee, after the coffee it changed the land use to the mountains, after came the sugar cane, cotton and after all this, the processes that come associated with the neoliberal model, the intention to turn El Salvador into a ‘service-hub’.
MM: To make our clothes in the West.
CF: Yes, Singapore style. It has cost us what we had.
MM: I do not know much about the problems caused by Coca-Cola in Nejapa or near to Nejapa. Do you know anything about this?
CF: Not so much, but I can make approximations. Coca-Cola has not been in Nejapa for very long. It was in Soyapango for ten years. Soyapango was one of the zones with the richest aquifer in San Salvador. Coca Cola dried up around 40 wells in the aquifer and when there were no wells left nearby, they packed their bags and left for Nejapa, which is another area that supplies San Salvador with water. Competition is needed to supply San Salvador or to give water to the companies. The previous administration of ANDA had a pretty good arrangement to save water for businesses, it was to open wells, to do research, and to find out if there was enough water to save for investments, sacrificing the need for water in San Salvador. There were 15 or 20 open wells that had a good supply capacity, but they were not used for this … So, Coca-Cola is doing global research about its impact on the neighbouring communities. For this report they have chosen three countries and one of them is El Salvador. The organisation that is developing this report is called Offam America, and they invited me to listen to the progress of the investigation in El Salvador.
MM: This was recently?
CF: It was last November, it still isn’t finished. If they finish it, they will not return to invite me, but it was supposed to be finished in April. The progress was until November, we were invited to listen to everything that they had achieved so that from what we said, they could explore other elements. To me it seemed peculiar, first because in the report they still took it that water is an indispensible material for production, they did not put it in the costs of production. They said that the chemicals of Coca-Cola were the first input, the production plant was the second input and that the labour that they took from Nejapa and Quetzaltepeque was the third input. Water was not yet there. I made this comment. Another thing that interested me is that they had quite an emphasis on the fact that they respect the laws of the country, i.e. that they pay the amount that the law states and that the tariff s that ANDA charge them are 6 centavos and they pay the 6 centavos for the 149,000 cubic meters that they use per year (149,000 m³). It is interesting because in El Salvador we do not have a General Water Law and it is peculiar because between 1998 and 2005 they discussed ten draft bills, they constructed them, and they paid for them with loans. Then, consultants came from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Spain, each one to make their proposal for the law, from their vision and emphasis etc. Some proposals involved privatisation, others did not, but in general they were all very loose about the issue of regulation. What is interesting is that nothing was approved by the private sector (they were only consulted) so nothing was official and therefore nothing was passed at the Legislative Assembly. So, I made this comment as a joke: that it is so easy to comply with the law when the law permits me to do anything I want and it is so easy to obey the law when I determine whether or not there is a law. And here lies the problem. We can analyse what Coca Cola does. And because they have already complied with ANDA’s 6 centavos, which is almost $20,000 per year, mission accomplished. They say that they go there because they have two basin management projects with those who spend maybe $10,000 per year and they go to give bottles of water to the communities that do not have them. With this issue addressed in the current conditions, we say very little. If there were more restrictive laws and if there were institutions that had the ability to monitor and to regulate, then we could see how to confront them. Under the current conditions, however, they give us a sweet and we are happy and we feel that we have won.
MM: One last thing. Could you give me a few words about free trade in this country, and specifically the working conditions within the factories? I know that these are different issues, but they are also linked and I wonder if the free trade treaties (CAFTA-RD and the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union) have clauses and articles about the conditions in the factories.
CF: I am going to respond firstly to the environmental issue and afterwards to the topic of the factories. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States (US) already causes us a problem. At present, we are faced with two international demands on the issue of mining: Pacific RIM and Commerce Group Corp. They have each demanded $100 million from us respectively, covered in the FTA. At the moment this impact is more severe than it looks, not for the $100 million each, but because there are 29 exploration permits that have been given, so there could be 29 demands for $100 million for the FTA with the US. Here there is another problem which is the present government’s necessity to continue negotiating free trade treaties, because they are also negotiating under the table an FTA with Canada. We do not trade anything with Canada, maybe some pupusas (typical El Salvadorian tortilla). Canada’s interest in El Salvador is in gold and silver, so the FTA is gold and silver, and we are still determined to negotiate this treaty, despite the implications that it could have. With the European Union (EU) we have more or less the same history. In the AA we begin with everything that has been negotiated with the US, that the EU’s AA already has, and we negotiate from there up. And this is not a good thing. With the EU, what is it that runs a risk? The environmental issue. 1) Biodiversity, 2) The agrochemicals business, i.e. the pollution from agriculture, there is Monsanto, Merck, etc, and 3) medicine. These are the biggest businesses that the EU has. In addition, the telephone, but that is another issue … Here are the impacts that we see and the impacts that are not so far away because already some are beginning to occur. When we speak of biodiversity, we mean the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) which would become almost an obligation in this treaty.
MM: This is a part of the treaties.
CF: Of course. On the issue of the factories, here there is not too much to regulate, the factories in El Salvador are a branch of Europe in the 1700’s, still since the times of slavery. Various studies have shown the serious breaches of human rights in the factories. Here there is not too much to regulate, because nothing is regulated, apart from the minimum wage which is being pushed very strongly in El Salvador in order to make the working hours more flexible, to hire by the hour and provide no overtime pay. The treaty has not gone into much depth on this issue because it has not been necessary. Already the conditions are fairly good within the companies, and also El Salvador is not one of the main strengths, it is not a very attractive country for businesses. It does not have the water supply system that it needs and electricity is very expensive. So, between China and El Salvador, companies go to China or Asia, where the conditions are much worse than here.
MM: The two M’s are terrible for El Salvador, Migration and Maquilas (factories).