The leader of El Salvador’s largest university has become embroiled in a nationwide debate over the proposed privatisation of water services in the country.
Students and staff at the Universidad de El Salvador have staged a series of protests in recent weeks in a bid to stop the government’s attempts to sell off sanitation services to major corporate bidders. The demonstrations have ranged from peaceful protests to the setting up of roadblocks around the capital, San Salvador, this month.
The dispute began earlier this year when El Salvador’s largest party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, agreed to allow private water company representatives to sit on the country’s water board – a move that campaigners claim will shift majority control away from public authorities.
Counter-proposals have been presented by the university rector, Roger Arias, in partnership with social campaign groups, to redefine water as a primary human right, arguing that clean water at an affordable price is crucial for the public health and stability of the country.
At one protest, students requested an audience with policymakers outside the National Assembly, but parliamentarians responded by accusing Professor Arias of being a terrorist, local news sites reported.
A second march took place outside local Coca Cola headquarters – the company already faces a backlash on account of a nearby bottling plant that uses scarce local water supplies.
An independent report released in 2016 warned that El Salvador will become uninhabitable within 80 years as a result of the current water crisis. The country has the most contaminated water in all of Latin America and the least water per person in the Central American region.
Under a privatised system, many fear that commercial companies could up the price of water per unit, creating a health crisis for thousands of underprivileged communities.
Giving a statement during the protests, Professor Arias asked to be part of the National Congress discussions. “We are not willing to be accomplices of a privatisation project promoted by the [government],” he said.