Once lush, El Salvador is dangerously close to running dry

The country's shrinking water supply is in jeopardy as weak regulation, lagging services, and climate variability fuel a complex crisis.

Photograph by Jane Hahn
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A girl washes her hair at a well at dawn in a small community in Cabañas, El Salvador. Most people here have no access to running water and must come to the well as early as 2 am during the dry season. Even though politicians have promised them relief, they have yet to see any change.
Photograph by Jane Hahn

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.

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Maria Alejandrino, 34, and Teresa Serrano, 42, are like most people in their community in Cabañas, in that they must get their water at a well during the dry season. A few locals have built makeshift plumbing systems to distribute water.

“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.

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The Rio Pampe as it appears today. In May 2016, nine thousand gallons of molasses spilled into it and the San Lorenzo, killing wildlife and contaminating the water supply for thousands of people. After two lawsuits and millions of dollars in fines, Ingenio La Magdalena has effectively cleaned up the disaster, though many residents say they have yet to be compensated for damages to their livelihoods.

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.”

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Ana Lillian Ramirez, 25, dresses her daughter Abigail Arias, 3, in the San Antonio neighborhood, where 28 houses–housing about 70 people–live without water.

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.

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San Salvador is seeing extensive development, such as this shopping mall, increasing water demand.

Residents like Carlos Melara, 45, who lives in the community of San Antonio Abad on the outskirts of San Salvador, fear that development is taking precedence over poor households like his. In June, Melara was hauling water up a steep hill to his family’s home multiple times a day. Half a mile away, one of the largest real estate developers in Central America, Grupo Roble, was building a high-rise apartment with such advertised amenities as a car wash, pet shower, and swimming pool.

Bracing for climate change

Central America, a narrow isthmus flanked by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is set to be hard hit by extreme weather events that are expected to increase in severity and frequency in the coming years. The region’s drought-prone Dry Corridor, in particular, is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the disasters resulting from a changing climate, and it blankets El Salvador. This will inevitably put further pressure on the country’s dwindling—and highly contaminated—water resources. (Learn how climate change is impacting Guatemala.)

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A woman looks over the makeshift wall outside her home in the San Antonio neighborhood.


People with few resources, who are generally less resilient in times of crisis, often end up most affected by these disasters. In 2014, for example, Central America suffered a record drought, leaving at least 96,000 Salvadoran families without adequate food. That same year, Salvadoran sugar cane producers recorded record harvests for export.

Harsh conditions continued in 2015 as a strong El Niño brought prolonged dry weather to the region. In 2016 the Salvadoran government declared the first-ever state of emergency due to drought. These severe dry spells have provoked major losses for El Salvador’s small farmers, many of whom are already experiencing food insecurity, which could drive displacement and migration. After poverty and unemployment, agricultural losses due to drought and other events is a leading cause of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, according to the World Food Programme.

At the same time, the expansion of industrial agriculture—in a country known for its export of crops like coffee and sugar—fuels soil degradation and extensive deforestation. The result is hard-packed soils impenetrable to rain. Add to that the fact that climate change is causing more sudden and intense rainfalls, and a water paradox is born. As Minister Pohl describes it, rains come too fast and too hard to soak into the hard-packed ground, so not only does the precipitation fail to recharge severely depleted groundwater reserves during the rainy season, but it also provokes deadly floods that further displace residents.

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Protesters in San Salvador oppose a right-wing plan to privatize water called the "Comprehensive Water Law."

Hydroelectric power generation in El Salvador, too, has been declining since 2010, with significant drops below the 30-year average in 2015 and 2016, according to government data. As hydroelectricity makes up a shrinking portion of the total energy mix, use of fossil fuels and imported electricity have risen to compensate.

Tackling the crisis

The government of El Salvador has made progress in recent years by improving water services and creating systems to monitor water quality and supply. But the country remains gripped by a polarizing debate over how water resources should be managed. Currently, more than 20 different institutions juggle the management and distribution of water, including the National Water Mains and Sewers Administration (ANDA), not to mention the more than 2,000 locally run water networks established to cover service gaps in rural areas.

“If we want to confront climate change, we first need to have strong governance,” says Helga Cuéllar-Marchelli, director of the department of social studies at FUSADES. “We need a joint effort from the central government, municipal governments, civil society, [and] the business sector. If there is no legal framework, it will be very difficult to coordinate efforts.”

Cuéllar-Marchelli advocates for an integrated approach that takes into consideration social equity, economic efficiency, and ecological sustainability in accordance with international best practices. That means treating watersheds holistically, by addressing not only water quality and quantity, but also soil conditions and other environmental factors affecting water supply.

Water legislation drafted by the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party has stagnated in El Salvador’s National Assembly for more than a decade in the face of opposition from a majority of conservative, business-aligned lawmakers. The General Water Law, first introduced in 2006, proposes a regulatory body composed of various public institutions to govern water as a public good.

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This billboard in Tonacatepeque reads "No to the privatization of water."

The United Nations urged El Salvador in 2016 to enshrine water as a human right in its constitution and to fill the regulatory vacuum by approving the proposed water law. And supporters of the law were encouraged when El Salvador approved a landmark ban on metals mining last year, celebrated as a historic move to protect clean water.

But then, in 2017, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party introduced a counter-proposal, with backing from the country’s powerful business lobby. This Comprehensive Water Law proposes an alternative five-member board with one representative from the government, two from the business sector, and two from the association of municipalities, which is currently dominated by ARENA.

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The sun rises over a volcano in El Salvador.

For Minister Pohl, the counter-proposal represents an attempt to privatize decision-making, which she argues is more reckless than privatizing service provision. “In a time of conflict and scarcity, when decisions need to be made about allocation, there must be criteria based on the common good, not private entities,” she says.

McKinley agrees that a rights-based focus is key to guiding effective legislation. “If you recognize water as a human right, it’s a logical extension to accept the fact that it is the state that has responsibility for managing that resource for all citizens of the country,” he says. The complexity of the water crisis demands active participation from citizens and civil society, including the private sector, but McKinley says that should take place through government-led processes.

“All of these issues related to climate change or to other causes of the crisis of water in El Salvador keep coming back to the lack of institutional structures to regulate water,” he says. “El Salvador’s viability as a nation really depends on the state of its natural resources, especially water.”

Heather Gies is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherGies .
Jane Hahn is a freelance photojournalist based in Dakar, Senegal. You can follow her on Instagram @JaneHahn. She also contributed reporting to this story.
Reporting for this story was supported in part by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.