On September 24, the government of Nayib Bukele named a new official to head the National Aqueduct and Sewer Administration (ANDA), the autonomous institution charged with the management, treatment, and distribution of water resources nationwide. During the swearing in ceremony, President Bukele showed a video greeting from U.S. Ambassador Ronald D. Johnson, who publicly endorsed the appointment. The new president of ANDA, Rubén Alemán, had been employed for twelve years as an environmental monitoring expert by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Alemán’s appointment has generated concerns and questions about the U.S. government’s involvement regarding the control of water resources.
For more than a decade, environmental organizations and water advocates have fought for a new General Water Law that would guarantee the human right to water, protect community water councils, and prevent the sale and contamination of water resources. More than 90% of El Salvador’s potable water has been polluted. In 2018, right wing parties in the Environmental Commission of the Legislative Assembly attempted to fast track a pro-privatization law called the Comprehensive Water Act. These attempts were widely condemned by environmental movements, labor, feminist and student movements, as well as by international organizations. So far, the U.S. Embassy has stayed on the margins of this debate, at least publicly.
Historically, however, the U.S. government has demonstrated its interest in the control of natural and water resources. In fact, the National Aqueduct and Sewer Administration (ANDA) was created in 1961 following guidelines set by the International Development Bank (IDB) along with a $2.7 million loan from the Social Progress Trust Fund of the “Alliance for Progress.” One condition for this loan was the creation of autonomous institutions to carry out specific functions that had until that point been in the hands of other state entities. Before ANDA, institutions linked to Public Works were charged with the distribution of potable water.
Social movements succeeded in protecting water resources from the wave of deep privatization in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s. But in 2013, the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador pressured for a new round of privatizations through a Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. required El Salvador to adopt in order to receive $277 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Drafted with input from the U.S. Treasury, the proposal was denounced by labor unions and social and environmental movements as a means to privatize remaining state industries and public resources.
FMLN legislators succeeded in exempting essential institutions – like education, health, the penal system, and water – from the final version of the law. Despite the 2013 success in combating the pressure, former U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte later insisted on reforms to the new law. Near the end of 2017, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to allow public-private partnerships for wastewater treatment facilities, several of which have since been established with U.S. financial support.
The distribution and management of water has deteriorated under the current administration of Nayib Bukele due to poor management of the autonomous agency and harassment toward community water councils. The COVID-19 emergency also caused many people to stay in their homes, which substantially increased the need for home usage of potable water. The national quarantine gravely affected the lack of water in various populous areas of the country, leading to desperate situations in various places and motivating people to undertake street actions demanding truly equitable and high quality water distribution.
As time passed and the water distribution situation grew critical, complaints of mismanagement also rose, which forced Bukele’s government to remove ANDA president Frederick Benitez. Despite his high-visibility mismanagement, Bukele ended up promoting Benitez to a new post as water commissioner within the executive branch; he’s also expected to receive $60,000 in compensation for his dismissal.
In addition to complaints regarding poor distribution of water, there have also been outcries from communities against possible attempts to take over some of the wells originally built to supply areas ANDA was failing to service that are managed by community water councils. The Community Association of Santa Eduviges (ACSE) in Soyapango requested that the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) issue special protective measures in response to efforts to steal the community’s water system. Carlos Flores, Coordinator of ECO El Salvador, who has accompanied the community, reports, “It is concerning that the ex-president of ANDA would attempt to cut service to the community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic…And now the new president, Rubén Alemán, has showed up here with police and soldiers to try to illegally enter into the ACSE headquarters.”
The controversy over the new appointment also comes as the institution is facing serious accusations regarding the deterioration of water quality and its poor distribution. This lack of resources has been used to intensify threats of partial privatization of water services, among other disguised neoliberal measures. It is amid this backdrop that U.S. Ambassador Johnson emphasized his approval of the new appointment to head ANDA, saying, “I have no doubt that he is the right person for this new challenge and we are pleased that he will collaborate with the government,” to which Rubén Alemán answered via his Twitter account, “Thank you @USAmbSV for being an important partner for sustainable development in El Salvador. I am confident that we’ll do great things for @ANDASV and El Salvador.”
In an opinion piece, journalist and Executive Director of the Association of Participatory Broadcasting of El Salvador (ARPAS), Leonel Herrera, denounced the U.S. government's influence in El Salvador’s policy decisions, including regarding the recent election of the new president of the Inter-American Development Bank (BID), in which Bukele “supported and celebrated” the election of U.S. nominee Mauricio Claver-Carone, breaking a 60 year continental, multilateral agreement that the role of president should be held by someone from Latin American or the Carribbean. Herrera went on to indicate that the new ANDA appointment demonstrates “that Donald Trump’s government influence exists including within domestic decisions of El Salvador’s executive [branch].”
For a long time, control of water resources has been under ongoing threat in El Salvador, and with this appointment, possibly spurred from within the U.S. Embassy, these threats are increasingly dire. At almost two months since Alemán took possession of the institution, organizations have continued demanding the approval of the General Water Law that would regulate ANDA and would provide protection to community water councils that provide water to populations historically abandoned by the government.
On October 15, the Legislative Assembly approved, with 78 votes in favor, reforms to Article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic, which recognizes access to water as a fundamental human right. This has been a historic struggle for popular organizations, primarily environmental ones. However, the reform will only come into effect if it is ratified by the next legislature, which will be elected in February 2021. In this pre-electoral context, right-wing support for the constitutional reform can be understood as an attempt to gain approval from a population that widely opposes privatization, not as a reflection of a change in their position.