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By Heleen Schrooyen, Senior Advisor Strategic Relations, NIMD
What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for people in Central America?
Wash your hands for 30 seconds? That seems easy enough. Easy, if you live in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or Spain; countries with good sanitary facilities. And as we all know, even these countries suffer from hundreds of people falling ill and dying from the Corona virus.
“Dying thirsty besides the source” sang Cuban poet Nicola’s Guillén. “Thirsty for water and justice” replied the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. Those two artists described one of the most painful paradoxes of Central America: water scarcity where there is in fact water abundance. This paradox becomes even more relevant in the current context, and the question is how politicians can respond to this paradox.
Water in Central America
Countries in Central America have an abundance of water supply and the region has made progress in improving its water structure. Today, between 80 and 95% of the urban population in Central America has access to water supply and sanitation. Yet at the rural level, that number falls to between 15 and 35%. These disappointing figures are not due to water scarcity, but a result of a lack of water management.
The importance of water to our very survival means its sustainability is a key global concern. Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is in fact the sixth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN-backed agenda for international development.
More specifically SDG target 6.5 indicates that “By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate”. But according to data from the Global Water Partnership, Central America is not close to reaching that goal in time, scoring between medium low and low and lagging behind global averages. As a result, on 22 March – World Water Day – the World Bank’s water specialist Antonio Rodriguez publicly warned: “Central America has to strengthen its capacity to manage water resources, revise the payment structure and invest in the infrastructure to improve the quality and guarantee water supply”.
The role of politicians
Recurrent incidents of drought, flooding, and crop failure reiterate the importance for politicians to take action on water policy and legislation, and can to protests – or even an exodus of citizens. For instance in January 2020, many in El Salvador found their tap water suddenly smelled and looked bad. This led to widespread protests, demonstrations and roadblocks. In response, the president indicated that indeed, it is time for action.
Over the past years, NIMD El Salvador has facilitated dialogue between political and civil society actors to discuss water policy and legislation. A first draft law was approved in 2016, but how has that debate advanced since then? Juan Melendez, NIMD director in El Salvador, explains: “The water law has stalled, because the assembly has not reached an agreement on the composition of the board that deals with water governance. The politicians are divided about whether to opt for private or more public governance.”.
The same inability to act by politicians can be seen in Guatemala. In his column in newspaper La Hora, politician Roberto Alejos points out that Members of Congress have been unable, or because of their financial backers unwilling, to legislate for water. Between 1990 and 2017, 10 attempts were made to regulate water use – unfortunately to no avail. In light of the current Corona crisis, Alejos calls upon the Ministry of Environment and Congress to work together, show the political support that is needed and to prioritize human beings above political interests.
And thirdly in Honduras, a long period of drought let to enormous water scarcity in 2019. The president spoke of an emergency as 30% of Honduran people turned to water from rivers and wells due to the lack of access to clean water. Scattered protests took place all over the country, denouncing the government for not responding to the water needs of the population.
The time for change is now
These cases show the importance for politicians to listen to their constituencies. The supply of water in Central America is not the problem. Water policy and legislation is. The current Corona crisis underlines the need for an integrated water approach. Only with clean water in urban and rural areas can people wash their hands, thus preventing the virus from spreading.
I say this to the politicians responsible: Corona gave us all a warning sign. Now is the time to act so that the next time a virus comes along, Central America can proudly say that 100% of its population have access to clean water.