As the sun comes up through a thick morning fog, Teresa Serrano joins other women from her community gathering around a natural spring nestled in the rolling hills of the Cabañas region. Here, in remote north-central El Salvador, they bathe, wash clothes, and prepare food. Today, Serrano waited until dawn to fetch water, but when the worst dry spells hit, she and her neighbors trek to the spring even earlier in the day.
“The well doesn’t produce a lot of water,” she says. “And when it dries up, we have had problems with people fighting.”
In rural villages across El Salvador, like Serrano’s, more than 600,000 people have no access to drinking water, and hundreds of thousands more experience limited or intermittent access. Although Central America is rich in water resources, El Salvador’s small land area relative to its population size puts its thinning annual water supply per capita dangerously close to falling short of demand. Decades of failure to adequately regulate water use in the country have also opened the door to overexploitation and pollution, while fragmented water management has left services lacking.
The result is a multilayered crisis of water scarcity, contamination, and unequal access that affects a quarter of the country’s population of 6.4 million. As climate change threatens to tip what is by far the most water-stressed nation in Central America deeper into crisis, some say the outcome of the country’s polarizing water management debate could be the lynchpin in the very viability of El Salvador’s future. (Learn about the uncertainties facing a migrant caravan from the country.)
Coming up dry
In recent years, aquifers in the coastal and central parts of El Salvador have receded by as much as 13 feet (4 meters), a trend Minister of Environment Lina Pohl flags as extremely alarming. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of surface water sources in the country are contaminated, according to reports from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
To make matters worse, none of the country’s main rivers can be purified for drinking through conventional methods such as filtration or chlorination. Experts say that untreated wastewater gushing straight from sewers into rivers as well as runoff from industry and agriculture are to blame.
“Poor people are the ones who tend to end up drinking contaminated water from natural sources,” says Andrés McKinley, an expert on water and mining at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in the capital city of San Salvador. “When large-scale industry is located near poor or lower-income communities, their overuse of water from subterranean aquifers leaves those communities without adequate water resources.”
McKinley says this is because power imbalances in decision-making have historically handed priority water usage to “Big Business,” such as industrial plantations, mining corporations, luxury housing developments, and bottling companies.
La Constancia, a subsidiary of ABInBev, for example, fills thousands of cartons of Coca Cola every day in Nejapa, a town perched atop a significant aquifer, while water only flows through local residents’ taps a few times each week, or less. La Constancia spokesperson Raúl Palomo attributes the problem to poor infrastructure and says a potable water initiative launched by the company in 2015 has helped close the gap in access.
Priscilla Pérez, a 32-year-old mother of four, faces shortages despite living atop an important aquifer in Nejapa. “There hasn’t been enough rain to collect water in eight days,” she told photographer Jane Hahn in June, one month into the typical rainy season. “We wish we had water from a faucet.”
According to the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), nearly a quarter of the population in rural areas has no access to running water either in their homes or at public taps. Women and children are particularly impacted by shortages, as they tend to bear the burden of hauling water for domestic uses. For those living in areas controlled or contested by rival gangs, fetching water from remote sources also exposes them to greater risks of robbery, rape, and other attacks.
City dwellers are not immune to the water crisis, either. According to Maria Dolores Rovira, head of the department of process engineering and environmental sciences at UCA, water quality and supply are similarly deficient in poor neighborhoods in the capital, San Salvador. The Nejapa aquifer serves as the water source for the majority of metropolitan San Salvador, and damages to pipes earlier this year cut service to more than one million people for days. Thousands queued to fill jugs from emergency water trucks, some from private companies charging a fee. Exasperated residents in poor neighborhoods took to the streets to protest the mismanagement and shortcomings of the current system.