Ojo de Agua
At dawn, surrounded by a thick morning fog, women gather around a small natural spring in the mountains of Cabañas, El Salvador to wash clothes, prepare food and bathe. “When the water is really bad, I have to come as early as 3am. But the well doesn’t produce a lot of water and when it dries up we have had problems with people fighting” says Teresa Serrano, 42. The 112 families that make up this community—like the 1.6 million other Salvadorans who also live with limited access to water—are fighting against the right wing elite over the potential commodification of the country’s remaining potable water supply.
After decades of mismanagement coupled with the increasing effects of climate change, the majority of El Salvador's 320 rivers are heavily contaminated with waste and industrial chemicals. Additionally, a high level of urbanization and industrialization that took place in the 1990’s led to massive deforestation, which prohibited the land from absorbing rainwater to refill underground aquifers. Today, private gated communities, shopping malls, bottling plants and sugar cane fields are reportedly able to use unlimited amounts while neighboring towns and communities have nearly
Salvadorans have been fighting for the human right to clean, potable water for over two decades with little change. Then, last month, lawmakers began discussing a law recently put forward by the right-wing ARENA party that would place the country’s water management into the hands of those who have the private sectors’ interest at heart. “The state continues to sign and agree to international trade laws to protect economic development and not humanitarian development” says activist Sonia Sanchez. Real estate developers, sugar cane processing plants, and companies such as Coca Cola, SabMiller, and Jumex, dominate the economy and are given priority by officials for water consumption.
At a recent press conference, Óscar Ortiz, El Salvador’s Vice President, stood alongside Felipe Rivas, President of ANDA (National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers) and members of Grupo Roble, one of the largest real estate developers in Central America, after they toured a high end apartment building still under construction. He spoke of need to simplify procedures to open up the path for investors adding “...employment is most important thing we can offer this country. If there is employment, there is income, and if there is income there is hope. And when people have a good job and an income for their families, they are not thinking about emigrating.” But, less than 1000m away in the community of San Antonio, Carlos Melara, 45, walks up and down a steep hill filling water jugs (up to 12 times a day during dry season) to bring to his family. Many in his community worry that the large apartment buildings being constructed so close to their homes will be given priority to the already dwindling water supply.
Many communities have fought against the industries that pollute their water sources and most have won. In May 2016, nine thousand gallons of molasses spilled into multiple rivers, killing life along 50 miles of waterways and contaminating the water supply for thousands of people. After two lawsuits and millions of dollars in fines, Ingenio La Magdalena, the sugar-cane processing plant responsible for the spill, has effectively cleaned up the disaster but the damage has taken its toll on the wildlife that local communities so heavily depend on. Even so, many residents affected by the spill have yet to be compensated for the continued damage
to their livelihoods.
The majority of those impacted in the water crisis are women, who not only care for the family when they fall ill from contaminated water but must also travel to the water source when they supply runs out. Women are also at risk in areas like the small communities in San Julian, an area dominated by sugarcane plantations. They lie between rival gangs where lone women by the river are exposed to sexual violence and exploitation by local members. “I use water from the wells to do my household chores, but now we have less and less water and we are forced to go down to the river which is very far away. We are alone so any gang member can show up, ask us for money, kill us, rape us or disappear us. And it’s also a danger for the children who come with us.” said a woman who wished to remain anonymous
for safety reasons.
When reservoirs run empty during the dry season and water truck expenses are too high, many women must travel to the river to wash dishes and clothes. “There hasn’t been enough rain to collect water in eight days. It’s been very bad. We wish we had water from a faucet.” says Priscilla Perez, 32, and mother of four living in Nejapa, a city that is situated over one of the country’s largest aquifers but is also home to major bottling plants. Rural neighborhoods have been supplying themselves with water for years, even though many still pay water bills.
Recently, these grass roots movements helped El Salvador become the first country in the world to ban metal mining to preserve their diminishing water supply. With the help of the Catholic Church, Salvadorans pressured the government to place water before gold. Activists see the win as encouraging but say the fight against the privatization of water will be harder because the state intends to choose economic interests over humanitarian ones. “Political parties can’t guarantee that they want to work for the people. They have their own interests and sometimes those interests don’t protect people” says activist Sonia Sanchez. “There’s no balance between human rights and economic rights.”
(This report was possible with the support from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF)