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El Salvador Wrestles With Worrisome Water Woes

April 29, 2010

When it rains in tropical El Salvador, it often quite literally pours. During the six-month wet season, afternoon “aguaceros” (downpours) are an almost daily occurrence, dumping buckets of rain in short, soaking surges that can add up to as much of 200 cm of precipitation in a given year.

On paper at least, that should be more than enough water to satisfy the needs of the country’s 7 million inhabitants. Yet for many Salvadorans, particularly the rural poor, infrastructure shortcomings and widespread pollution combine to make access to clean water dangerously elusive.

A decade ago, El Salvador committed itself to a series of UN-sponsored Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), promising among other things to reduce the percentage of people without sustainable access to drinking water (23.9% in 1991) by half by 2015.

With just five years to go, the country appears to have made progress. By 2006, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said, El Salvador had already cut to 16% the proportion of people without sustainable access to improved water sources.

Using a broad definition that includes not only direct water lines but also wells, water collectors, and even nearby river access, Salvadoran authorities paint an even brighter picture. Pointing to its annual Encuesta de Hogares de Propositos Multiples (EHPM) survey, the government insists El Salvador has already met its water-related MDG–that approximately 90% of the population now has access to improved water sources.

Serious problems persist

Many observers, however, insist El Salvador’s water woes are far from resolved. A closer look at the numbers, even the government’s figures, suggest decent water access continues to be unavailable for a significant portion of the population.

The most recent EHPM found that only 70% of Salvadoran households are directly connected (either inside or out) to water pipes. Direct access is particularly lacking in rural areas, where just 44% (compared to 82% in cities) having running water in their homes. Some people are lucky enough to use a neighbor’s water pipes (4% in urban areas and 6% in rural zones). But many, particularly in the countryside, rely on “other” sources that are often unsafe and certainly more difficult to access. In rural areas, last year’s EHMP suggested, 15% of households get their water from protected wells, 6% from unprotected wells, and 13% from rivers, streams, and other naturally flowing sources.

Even for homes fortunate enough to have direct pipelines, water access can still be a problem. In many communities, water only flows through the pipes a few hours per day, sometimes with so little pressure families cannot even collect enough to meet their daily household needs.

Nor is there much of a guarantee the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. The state entity responsible for the country’s waterworks, the Administracion Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA), only has a limited number of wastewater-treatment facilities. A recent report by the International Ecological Engineering Society (IEES) found that, as of 2007, treatment plants are available in only eight of the 81 municipalities covered by ANDA. In most cases, sewage flows directly into streams and rivers. The same is true for waste from industry and agriculture.

“It’s really serious, especially because of the health risk,” said Alexis Stoumbelis, executive director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). “I know people there who live pretty comfortable lives but who are still sick pretty often, because even [the people] who have nice houses in El Salvador don’t have access to clean water.”

Poisoning the well

The health risk is of course greater for Salvadorans who are off the grid and rely, in some cases, on wholly unprotected and often extremely polluted water sources. El Salvador’s Ministerio de Medio Ambiente (MARN) marked last month’s World Water Day (March 22) with a sobering report on pollution in the country’s rivers and streams. Of the 124 samples used for the study, all showed traces of bacteria, heavy metals, and other pollutants. In 41 of the 55 rivers and streams MARN examined, pollution levels were so high that even heavy treatment would not make the water safe to drink. Treatment is possible for the other 14 bodies of water, “but we must use ever more costly chemicals,” said MARN head Herman Rosa Chavez.

“The rural population is the most affected, because they’re not connected to water pipes,” Edwin Trejo, a researcher with the Salvadoran organization Defensa del Consumidor (CDC), told NotiCen. “That means they use wells or go to the rivers, which are polluted. The majority of the country’s rivers and surface water is contaminated, because only 5% of industries treat their wastewater. The rest they just dump directly. It’s a very dramatic situation.”

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the World Bank estimates that chronic diarrhea alone–a problem directly associated with dirty water–kills some 500 Salvadoran children a year. A Ministerio de Salud Publica y Asistencia Social (MSPAS) survey released last year found that some 14% of Salvadoran children under the age of five regularly experience problems with diarrhea. The study found that among urban children, 12% had diarrhea problems within the two weeks before the survey was taken, while in rural areas, the incidence was even higher (16%).

Those who can afford to do so drink bottled water. Ironically, that “luxury” is generally off limits to the portion of the population, particularly the rural poor, who most need it. Even without taking bottled water into account, El Salvador’s poorest citizens often spend the most–in percentage of family income and time–trying to secure basic water access.

For some rural residents, that can mean walking miles, particularly during the dry summer months, to the closest viable water source. That can also mean having to buy relatively expensive water from passing tanker trucks when no other source is available.

In its 2006 Human Development Report (HDR), the UNDP found that the poorest 20% of the population in El Salvador spends in excess of 10% of family income on water. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, 3% would be considered a “hardship,” the report, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis, explained.

“It becomes a huge class issue, because if you have enough money, you can buy bottled water. Those who can use bottled water almost exclusively in their houses,” said Stoumbelis. “It’s a huge economic issue to have to buy water all the time, as well as an environmental issue to have a bunch of bottles, and it becomes a question of who can afford to buy bottled water or who has to drink the water that they have coming out of the tap or coming from a local stream, which is really unhealthy. In that sense, it creates a huge rift in terms of people’s access to clean water, which is really unfair.”

Greater investment needed, but what else?

A huge part of the problem is clearly the country’s infrastructure, or lack thereof. Right now, El Salvador simply does not have enough water pipes, sewer lines, and wastewater-treatment facilities to meet the basic needs of the population. And, say observers, with an annual infrastructure budget of less than US$20 million, ANDA is not in a position to make the necessary improvements any time soon.

The organization Red de Agua y Saneamiento de El Salvador (RASES) estimates that, to extend potable water service to 100% of the population by 2015, the country would need to invest some US$256 million, roughly US$50 million a year, just on infrastructure. The World Bank–which has long urged “decentralization”–privatization of the water system–puts the number even higher, at US$70 million-US$75 million per year (0.4% of El Salvador’s GDP).

But the problem is also structural, argue critics, who say that, while the country clearly needs greater investment, it could also benefit from better organization and coordination. ANDA administers most, but not all, of the country’s waterworks. And it does not have the authority or resources, for example, to regulate how industry and agriculture treat their wastewater. Nor does ANDA have any authority over El Salvador’s rivers and streams.

“The country has not adopted or executed an integral policy, one that deals with water resources from an ecosystemic standpoint,” said Trejo. “Industry doesn’t treat its waste, there are few water-treatment plants, and those that do exist don’t work at optimal conditions. As a result there’s a serious problem in terms of deterioration of the natural resources.”

In 2006 the CDC and other civil-society groups handed the unicameral Asamblea Legislativa (AL) a proposal for a General Water Law. Backers of the bill claim it would establish a more coordinated, universal approach to the problem. In 2007, ANDA submitted its own proposal. Three years later, however, both legislative pitches remain just that, as the Asamblea shows no sign it plans to tackle the issue any time soon.

(This article was originally published April 22, 2010 by LADB)

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