SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Water quality in El Salvador is an ongoing issue for the small but densely populated country. Around 90% of the surface water is contaminated and deemed unsafe to drink by international standards. Industrial waste in El Salvador is the main cause of water contamination. Without environmental laws and wastewater treatments, factories and mining companies dump waste and untreated water back into water sources. However, in the past decade issues concerning quality of water have become a priority to many Salvadorians.
The issue of companies contaminating water supplies came to the forefront when the brewing and bottling company SABMiller wanted to install more wells in the municipality of Nejapa. This enraged many of the residents. The company had already used an enormous amount of water from their only water source, the San Antonio River. Additionally, the company was responsible for the heavy contamination of the river. Residents complained that their water had become limited. At times, brown water would come out of their faucets. Many protests took place in Nejapa. While the protests were successful in stopping the opening of a new plant, environmental and human rights organizations saw the legislation as the key to long-term success.
This encouraged the Salvadoran Ecological Unit to draft the General Water Law bill. The bill enforces access to water for everyone, as well as establishing regulations on how much water companies are allowed to use. The bill also wants to ensure that companies treat wastewater before placing it back into water sources. In March 2014, thousands of Salvadorians marched in the capital, San Salvador, to support the bill. Political tension between the two major parties, FMLN and ARENA, have impeded the bill from being passed. But, the Salvadorian government has been able to address the other most important issue — mining.
As of 2015, there are 32 mining projects, which heavily affect the water quality in El Salvador. The process of mining for gold involves leaching, which is a method that uses cyanide and large amounts of water. If not treated immediately, the cyanide contaminated water can make its way back to rivers and lakes. In 2012, Salvador’s Environment and Natural Resources Ministry tested the water of the San Sebastian River which had been a mining site in the 1990s. The water had nine times the acceptable level of cyanide and also tested very high for iron. In the recent years, the government and the Salvadorian people have become more resistant against mining.
Most recently, Oceanagold (formerly Pacific Rim) sued the Salvadorian government for $301 million after they were not allowed to mine in the department of Cabañas. The Salvadorian government and the residents were against the mine because of the toll it might take on the water source in the town. The Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) asked the hydrogeologist Robert Moran to review Pacific Rim’s research reports. He concluded that the company did not disclose the impact that mining would have on the community and did not conduct adequate research on the water quality and quantity in El Salvador. In October of this year, after a lengthy court case, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes sided with El Salvador. The country has banned metal mining under the presidential decree and hopes to make it a permanent and nationwide ban in the near future.
Although there is still a lot to do to protect water sources from industrial waste in El Salvador, Salvadorians are actively fighting for water laws that favor the community over company profits.
– Karla Umanzor