El Salvador announced this week that it was halting metals mining across the country, according to the Financial Times (sub. req.), in response to severe environmental harm caused by mining. After winning a case at ICSID about a large gold mining concession late last year, the government's decision seems to indicate a new desire to reverse some of the human health issues linked to the mining operations.
But the decision was also deeply tied to the water resources of the country, which are exceptionally scarce. Lynn Holland of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs was quoted as saying: "The case of El Salvador is a particularly serious one. There is almost no clean water left in the country."
But the situation in El Salvador highlights a Hobson's Choice that has faced many emerging economies: economic growth versus water degradation. In choosing to end metals mining, El Salvador is increasing protections for its scarcest resource. On the other hand, it is leaving behind the opportunity to increase its economic output in the mining sector.
When it comes to protecting water, El Salvador is making a significant choice here to forego that revenue. But there is another question here: is it better to prevent pollution of water altogether or to find a way to effectively clean the water to drinkable standards after pollution? There is a balance, one that may required technology beyond what we currently have at hand. When that balance is lost, protecting water security has to be goal.