Ojo de Agua (2018)
At dawn, surrounded by 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 3 am. 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 1990s 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 no water.
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.
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 grassroots 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)