Environment, Public Health

Rain Rain Everywhere…. And Not a Clean Drop to Drink?

Around the world, over 1 billion people lack access to clean water, and over 3 million die each year from complications caused by drinking untreated water.  The United Nations Development Program attributes the global water crisis to “power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability.”

El Salvador, unfortunately, is a case in point. Located in one of the most water-rich regions of the world, some areas of El Salvador get up to 6 ½ feet of rainfall each year.  Over 90% of all surface water in El Salvador, however, is contaminated, and more than half of the Salvadoran population consumes untreated water.  1.4 million Salvadorans live without a dependable water supply.  (1.4 miliones no tendrán acceso al agua en el Día Internacional, DiarioCoLatino, March 22) In a recent study of the 124 monitored sites in El Salvador’s 55 rivers, none were assigned a quality rating of good.  60% were classified as regular, 31% poor, and 9% terrible.  This is a substantially lower overall quality rating than observed as recently as 2007. (Ríos salvadoreños no presentan buena calidad en agua, La Prensa Gráfica, March 22).

Beyond statistics, the issue is a daily feature of life in El Salvador. Tim’s El Salvador Blog recently posted an article describing how water scarcity affects the lives of Salvadoran rural populations. It is undeniable that water security is a necessary achievement before any sustainable development can take place.

Much of the water problem may be attributed to the plethora agencies that are responsible for managing El Salvador’s water resources. These agencies are responsible for gathering and protecting water resources, supplying families with potable water, and treating wastewater.  Few, however, actually achieve their objectives.

Additionally, the Ministry of the Environment, police, and other law enforcement agencies fail to enforce the country’s environmental laws in a manner that prevents contamination of rivers, lakes and water tables.  Water distribution is too often determined by wealth and political connections, and no one agency controls distribution nationwide. To date, El Salvador still does not have a wastewater treatment plant, and sewage is often dumped straight into local stream and rivers where people collect drinking water, bathe and wash clothes.  Lacking any one entity to coordinate their activities, these agencies often clash over water policies and allocation of resources.

The Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA) is the agency that provides the most water services in El Salvador, covering 181 of the 262 municipalities in El Salvador, around 30% of the total population. ANDA’s primary focus is on San Salvador, Santa Ana, and San Miguel, where it generates almost 70% of its revenue. While water services are regular throughout these major cities, rural municipalities may only have access to water 4 to 16 hours a day – some may be without for three weeks or more. This means that poor campesinos can spend 4.9%-13.6% of their productive time collecting water for household use.

The rural municipalities and communities that ANDA does not serve must depend on individual private companies, municipal water operations, aid organizations, or local private voluntary organizations.

Over 100 housing developers have built their own autonomous urban water systems because at the time of construction ANDA would not or could not connect them to their services. These systems are then handed over to private companies for management and regulation, which generally connotes high tariffs and inaccessibility for poor populations.

83 municipalities provide services directly to their residents, almost exclusively through underground systems. This water is available to anyone in the municipality, but the organization managing the program is generally unable to offer any substantial subsidy (as ANDA provides), and therefore it remains out of reach for many of the rural poor.

There are currently 12 signed agreements between ANDA and decentralized service providers, permitting them to use ANDA’s infrastructure to provide services to underserved communities. These agencies manage the provision of services completely autonomously, with little (if any) supervision from ANDA.

Finally, there are over 800 community based organizations, most of which are rural cooperatives. Some examples are the Junta de Agua, and the Asociación de Desarrollo Comunitario. This type of organization serves 30% of the population, almost all of which is in rural areas that have limited, if any, access to ANDA.

The lack of regulation of these various water service providers adds to the disparity in water services from community to community. Too many communities still do not have a water system that pipes water to homes, forcing families to spend hours every day carrying water from streams, rivers or local wells to their homes.  The lack of centralized legislation or monitoring means that each of these organizations is able to provide services how they choose, and for how much they choose. Prices of water can vary significantly depending on where you live, and consistent access to water is not guaranteed even if one of these organizations functions in your area.

Though well intentioned, aid organizations often fail to understand the exact needs or power structures of the communities they intend to help. As a result, their efforts do not solve the long-term need for water services. Communities that lack developed water systems have to rely on shallow wells or contaminated surface waters, which often result in serious public health issues.  Communities along Rio Acelhuate, for example, consume river water that is contaminated by heavy metals and industrial waste resulting in serious health issues among the population.

The extreme surface water contamination has several sources. Deforestation, which has eliminated over 85% of El Salvador’s forests, has resulted in widespread erosion of topsoil. When the soil runs off, it carries with it residual agrochemicals and naturally occurring heavy metals. As farmers plant crops on eroded and depleted land, they use an increasing amount of fertilizers and pesticides, which seep into shallow water tables and nearby streams and rivers. El Salvador has fairly progressive environmental laws on the books, but enforcement is weak. As a result, individuals and corporations dump untreated waste and dangerous chemicals directly into water sources. The minister of the Environment, Herman Roza Chávez states that the Environmental Law already in place includes sufficient provisions to construct a sustainable policy of water use and does not support the development of an additional water law. (Gobierno en desacuerdo con la Ley General de Agua, elsalvador.com, March 22, 2010)

The Salvadoran government has discussed enacting legislation to better coordinate the management of water resources, but has thus far been unsuccessful.  A general water law and a potable water law were proposed to the Legislative Assembly in 2006 and 2007 respectively but neither was successful.  The Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), the Salvadoran Association of Engineers and Architects, and several environmental organizations from around the world call for a water law to expand water access and improve water quality throughout the country. (El CESTA solicita al Gobierno crear la Ley del Agua, DiarioCoLatino, March 23)

One provision in many water laws is privatization of water management. Previous administrations have thought this to be a good way for the government to generate income while ensuring better water services for more communities. Privatized water management, however, has resulted in higher prices and lower water quality in many of the countries that have tried it. The Peruvian government, for example, privatized its water resources in the 1990s, only to take them back over after citizens complained that they were paying more for less. ANDA however, calls for the creation of a water law that gives the company even more control over contamination, treatment plants, and wells.  (Gobierno en desacuerdo con la Ley General de Agua, elsalvador.com, March 22, 2010) Salvadoran civil society has been nearly united in its opposition to privatization of water resources. In October 2007, 125 organizations mobilized over 25,000 people in a march against privatization. They also called for the government to recognize water as a basic human right, and for greater investment into water services.

Despite this public outcry, the extreme nature of the problem, and recent international attention, water availability and scarcity in El Salvador remains a pressing national problem. Much more research, legislation, and infrastructure is necessary to remedy this situation and create reliable and inexpensive access to clean water for all Salvadorans.


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