For almost three decades, various communities in the Salvadoran southeast have collectively and efficiently managed the water they consume, but monocultures and climate change put their continuity at risk..
"These are the collateral effects of climate change, in addition to deforestation and monocultures," the president of the Lempa Abajo Community Development Association, Patrocinio Dubón, told IPS.
Dubón hails from San Carlos Lempa, a hamlet in the eastern municipality of Tecoluca where the association's offices are located, which manages a community water project born here 25 years ago.
Like other towns, the hamlet incorporates the Lempa River in its name, which runs for more than 440 kilometers in this small country, before flowing into the Pacific Ocean. It is the longest in El Salvador and its basin is vital for the life and agricultural activity of a considerable part of the local rural communities.
These coastal lands, former cotton farms, were parceled out and distributed to part of the guerrillas who had just demobilized, after the end of the Salvadoran civil war, which ravaged this Central American country from 1980 to 1992.
Because the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals in cotton, and later in sugar cane, had reached the aquifers, the residents of San Marcos Lempa gave up using that water and instead looked for a cleaner source, and found it in a well located 13 kilometers further north.
With the support of international cooperation, they set up this community water project, which is now supplied by 26 nearby communities that include some 2,000 families and who would otherwise have difficulties in having access to piped water.
According to official figures, 95.5 percent of households in urban areas have access to piped water, but the figure drops to 76.5 percent in rural areas.
The beneficiaries of the water project pay $ 5.65 per month for 15 cubic meters, the amount needed to supply a family of about six people. With the installation of meters in each home, it can be verified if that consumption has increased, and that cost is added to the bill.
To have access to this community network, each family had to pay 389 dollars for the installation and other costs of the system, but if they did not have the money, the administrators gave the possibility of paying that amount in six installments.
Currently, about 70 percent of residents are connected to the service, and the rest are supplied by what is served to neighbors who do have the system.
Risks to the system
However, the sustainability of the project is now at risk because the impacts of climate change, deforestation and sugar cane monoculture have hit the country's watersheds, and this region is no exception, Dubón said.
For that matter, the well that San Carlos Lempa is supplied with, he added, has dropped almost three meters from the optimal level it was in a few years ago, and this has forced rationing measures to be taken.
"We have already been rationing it for two years, we served it one day to some communities, and other days, to others," he said.
But due to the need for the well, based on a technical study that will soon begin, "we are going to ration it more."
The sugar industry, whose raw material is sugar cane, is a powerful sector with influence on the economy and politics of this Central American country of 7.3 million inhabitants.
The Sugar Association, which brings together the sector, is made up of six sugar mills, the majority of which is controlled by influential Salvadoran families from the agro-industrial sector.
The sugar sector generates some 48,000 direct jobs, another 187,000 indirect jobs and generates more than 186.5 million dollars in economic contributions, according to figures from the sector.
However, the industry has been under constant criticism from environmental groups due to the contamination implied by the expansion of the crop, either by the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals, by the excessive consumption of water in irrigation or by harmful practices for the environment .
Among these is the "burning" of the cane fields during the harvest, to make the process more efficient, since it is easier and faster for the thousands of braceros to cut the cane with the leaves that are partially burned.
But the burning brings pollution to the environment, and the most worrying thing is the intensive use of water to irrigate the crops.
Silvia Ramírez shows how the flow of streams that surround the San Fernando village in eastern El Salvador has decreased, due, among other reasons, to the excessive use of water by cane producers, who impound their channels in small dams for later divert water to their crops, affecting the surrounding rural communities. Credit: Courtesy of Edgardo Ayala
In a 2016 report, IPS revealed the impacts of this agroindustrial sector on the way of life of peasants and the impacts it brings to ecosystems. At that time, the industry minimized these consequences and ensured that only 15 percent of the 116,000 hectares dedicated that year to cultivation were watered nationwide.
The problems that exist in the San Carlos Lempa water system is no exception.
In the San Fernando farmhouse, also in the municipality of Tecoluca, the water resource has been equally affected, for the same reasons.
“We are rationing it to take care of it,” Silvia Ramírez, administrator of the Santa Mónica Community Water Board, explained to IPS.
Because the beneficiaries also manage their consumption through meters, the families "have learned to use it rationally," he said.
Other municipalities in the country, even with the service provided by the State, face day-to-day problems to supply themselves, because although the families are connected by pipes, the water simply does not reach their taps.
The Salvadoran media regularly report roadblocks by enraged residents of urban neighborhoods or rural municipalities, as they do not have the service.
Controversial Draft Water Law
The efforts of rural communities to take care of the water resource contrast with the decisions that Salvadoran legislators are reaching regarding the discussion of a controversial preliminary draft of the Water Law, especially the article that stipulates the formation of the National Water Authority (ANA), which would be the governing body.
The deputies of the Environment and Climate Change commission of the Legislative Assembly are in the midst of the hurricane for having reached an agreement, on March 18, for the industrial and agricultural sectors to participate in the board of directors of that entity.
The agreement, with the green light of eight of the 11 members, has not yet been discussed or approved in plenary session, but it did have the endorsement in that commission of all political parties, except that of the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which he will leave power in June.
That means that, if it goes to debate in the coming weeks, there is already a favorable preliminary agreement so that those influential sectors, with interests outside those of the general population, not only participate in the governing body, but also manage to control the decisions made around to water resources.
The social movement, which has started with protest marches throughout the week in which International Water Day was celebrated, this Friday, March 22, insists that only state entities participate in that figure.
"If we include those private sectors, which only see profit and profits, it is like putting the wolf to take care of the sheep," activist Marielos de León told IPS.
The ANA would be made up of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, mayors, citizen water boards and the University of El Salvador, in addition to the two private sectors involved.
By Edgardo Ayala
Edition: Estrella Gutiérrez