Just when Sandra Cuellar thought her family’s water woes couldn’t get any worse, intense rains from tropical storm Eta flooded her home in rural El Salvador and threatened to cut off her family’s access to clean water.
“It’s worrying because with the rains, the tubes break and there’s no water,” Cuellar, 32, told VICE News from her home in Joya Galana, a community of about 150 families in the municipality of Apopa to the north of the capital city of San Salvador.
In June, her seven-year-old daughter got sick with a fever, headache and chest pain at a moment when their taps were running dry. Cuellar suspected COVID, so the 32-year-old single mother risked a trip to the store to buy water to bathe herself and her daughter and clean their house. All she could find were a few small bags of it.
“We’ve called [authorities] but they don’t pay attention to us,” said Cuellar, who says she has gone without running water for most of the pandemic.
She’s not alone. Forty percent of Salvadorans don’t have running water every day, according to a report by the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central America (UCA).
The Central American country is densely populated and its rivers severely polluted, making it one of the most water-stressed countries in Latin America. If leaders don’t act fast, El Salvador will be uninhabitable for its 6.5 million residents in less than 80 years, according to a report by El Salvador’s human rights office.
During this year’s hurricane season, the most active on record, rising rivers and damaged water pipes worsened the water crisis. On November 6, the government agency that administers water known as ANDA announced water shortages in and around San Salvador because of the rising levels of the Rio Lempa, which flows through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, caused by tropical storm Eta.
Rather than provide a much needed reprieve from the dry season, heavy rains often damage water infrastructure, and floodwaters pollute natural water sources by picking up sewage and trash, making them undrinkable. For Hernán Romero, an engineer with El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), the increase in storms and heavy rains is one of the biggest concerns for the future of El Salvador’s water crisis, particularly if the country does not fix its trash disposal problem, which can clog drainage systems and worsen flooding.
“It’s not the same to go without water on a normal day as it is during a pandemic, when water has an even greater importance for health reasons,” said Óscar González, a researcher who has studied the country’s lack of water access for the REDIA organization, which funds environmental research. “We are putting people without water at risk.”
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have fled gang violence and high rates of unemployment in recent years. Soon, the country’s water crisis may also push them north. The pandemic could intensify resource conflicts, according to experts.
“A perfect storm of poverty, growing natural resource scarcity, and pandemic may lead to the collapse of already fragile states, but also severely impact many others,” according to a statement from Water Peace and Security Partnership, an international coalition of government and non-governmental organizations.
Apopa faces multiple threats to its water supply: development projects, natural disasters, corruption and mismanagement. The country’s gangs worsen the crisis by denying officials access to their communities for water repairs. Apopa is one of top 10 municipalities in the country with the most COVID cases, according to data from the Health Ministry.
About 60 percent of Salvadoran households, including Cuellar’s, receive water from state water agency ANDA. But many people complain of shortages and contaminated water from the state provider. Cuellar says the water often flows brown, when she has it at all. Corruption is the likely culprit. Millions of dollars from the government agency have allegedly been siphoned off in a string of corruption scandals.
Other residents rely on community water councils, which are local organizations that have sprung up to fill gaps in water services. Others go directly to a nearby river to collect water. When all else fails, Salvadorans like Cuellar buy it from private vendors that stop by the neighborhood, or at supermarkets and stores, an added cost for many already struggling families. About 30 percent of Salvadorans live on less than $5.50 a day. Cuellar estimates she spends at least six or seven dollars a week on water.
During the pandemic, many residents who would usually venture out to buy or collect water opted to stay inside for fear of being detained and sent to a quarantine center under the country’s strictly enforced lockdown. Some local water councils had the same worry, so they couldn’t keep up with regular maintenance of their water systems.
Development projects also threaten El Salvador’s water sources, according to environmental defenders. Activists say an apartment complex called Valle El Angel in Apopa will reroute water from the nearby Chacalapa River that poor families like Cuellar’s depend on. The company’s contract with ANDA will allow it access to more than 17 million liters of water per day. ANDA did not respond to VICE News’s request for comment.
Sara García, a community leader in Apopa with women’s organization Colectiva Kawoq, said that private interests have priority over public ones.
“Here in this country, the companies have water, but communities don’t.”
Via Vice News