There is nothing that unites the women of Panchimalco more than the lack of drinking water. Here, having a little to drink is a luxury and “suffering”. Every five or eight days, the liquid reaches the taps of the three most distant communities in the center of this municipality south of San Salvador for a couple of hours: Panchimalquito, Pajales and El Divisadero. Those who line up very early will hopefully carry two barrels from a well that supplies some 600 families. “We have to arrive first because, if not, there is nothing left,” says Verónica Alfaro while waiting in the last canton to receive what is left in the tank.
Panchimalco has always fought for this resource. When Alfaro moved to this part of the Cordillera del Balsamo eight years ago, he found out. “I went from having it on hand in my home to being forced to look for it anywhere for my children.” The water here drops by dropper through the taps in its streets. If it is winter, the rains relieve. But from November to April, the summer drought forces the women to set out with jugs on their heads towards the rivers, on a journey of at least three kilometers in which they risk their lives. “It has always been the same suffering, but now we cannot pass the mountains for fear of those who are there,” says the leader of El Divisadero who carries the jars with her stepdaughter. “I’m afraid they will do something to her,” she admits.
Fear is breathed in every word that, cautiously, they choose to speak of those who are behind the violence. “Many companions have been raped, some even disappeared,” laments Estebana Bonilla. “The need made us go out at dawn to bring a single jug from the ravines,” recalls the embroiderer from the Acopanchi women’s cooperative in Panchimalco. “Now because of insecurity, however, we endure, with the same water we wash the eggs and we use that same water to drink coffee.”
Although crime figures have plummeted in El Salvador in recent years, gangs still roam freely through Panchimalco. Their threats caused the exodus of some 30 families in May 2021, according to local media, and the municipality was the target of the rebound in homicides that the Central American country registered from November 9 to 11, in which at least 47 people were murdered, according to the Civil national police.
“In my childhood we could walk freely through the rivers, bathe and wash without taking any risk,” says Leonor Ramírez with the grief of 44 years of water shortage in the Pajales canton. “To prevent our daughters from taking risks, the older ones take on the task of going to the ravines because we know what can happen.”
What happened in Panchimalco is one more drop than what the neighbors in rural towns in El Salvador affected by this famine are going through. The water crisis therefore continues to be one of the deepest expressions of inequality in the country, warns Oxfam in its report El Salvador: Water, elites and power. A crisis that worsens as 90% of its surface waters are already polluted and it is the poorest population that pays the highest price for their deprivation.
12.8% of Salvadorans in the field are supplied by a well and another 10.2% by rivers, rain collection or purchase from tanker trucks
For Óscar Ruiz, from the El Salvador Water Forum, it is a “water injustice” that still makes 12.8% of Salvadorans in the countryside supply themselves from a well and another 10.2% from rivers, streams and births, collect it from the rain or buy it from tanker trucks, according to the latest Multipurpose Household Survey. “It is painful that communities with nearby springs do not have access, while they watch the companies take it away. It doesn’t matter if you have the source there, because whoever has the economic power finally agrees ”.
This is the case in Panchimalquito, Pajales and El Divisadero, which only since 2014 have had a well managed by a neighborhood council, a very frequent form of organization in communities where the State does not arrive with aqueducts and sewers. However, this service, for which each family pays about 3.5 euros per month, does not exhaust the demand here. With difficulty, it supplies 80% of the 738 families with two barrels a week. “During the pandemic, we spent many moments without water and we had to buy a drum (five barrels) at 10 dollars (eight euros) from the tanker trucks,” says Magdalena Martínez, a user of the tank in El Divisadero. “Those of us who couldn’t pay that amount didn’t even want to sell us a barrel.”
The Salvadoran elites have turned their backs on this crisis, warns Oxfam, to the point that this resource is not a human right in the country’s Constitution, despite the fact that the United Nations has recognized it as such since 2010, nor is there a law that regulates its use. The pressure exerted by the conglomerate of sugarcane entrepreneurs, real estate construction and bottled beverages “would explain why, in more than a decade, it has been impossible to approve such a decisive legal framework for people’s lives,” he details in your report.
For Ruiz and other experts, this concentration of power is transferred to the proposed Water Resources Law, which the Legislative Assembly is currently discussing. “In its article 1 it recognizes the human right to water, but it should mean a right without discrimination or privileges to business sectors,” he says. Among other points, it refers to the fact that if the law is approved, as it is, it would affect the neighborhood councils of the communities. They would only have an authorization to use water for five years, while companies would be allowed for 15 years to extract up to 1,000 cubic meters per day for commercial purposes, an inequity on which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Law has ruled. Human to Drinking Water and Sanitation in a letter addressed to President Nayib Bukele.
Meanwhile, women continue to bear water shortages and the scars of violence in neighborhoods like Panchimalco. They hear it and remember it on a daily basis. “There they threaten you, assault you, rape you,” they repeat. It is not safe to go that far. Neither is reporting. Not surprisingly, it is estimated that Salvadorans barely report 20% of cases of violence for fear of reprisals from gangs, according to a study by the feminist movement Las Mélidas and the Fundación Mujeres.
But fear does not paralyze your fight here. “We are organized because we want to see a difference in the cantons,” says Verónica Alfaro, who participates in the local Women’s Committee. “Perhaps we will not enjoy the fruits of that struggle, but it will help others not suffer the same.” Thus, she and other women leaders from nine of the 14 cantons of Panchimalco work with the United Community Association for Water and Agriculture (ACUA) in various projects aimed at defending their rights “regarding access to drinking water, decent employment and non-social violence or police and military harassment ”.
In 2020, they managed to get the NGO to start a community project, with funding from the Menorquí Cooperation Fund and the Government of La Rioja, and with the support of Medicus Mundi, to improve supplies for all families. At that time, the agreement with the mayor’s office was a new well that the communities would manage and for which they provided the labor. However, with the arrival of the new authorities in 2021, the project has been stopped and the communities have been denied access to the well and the materials acquired. “We feel bad because we see the risk that they will not return it to us,” says Leonor Ramírez. “We feel that we are losing it and we will be limited in this summer that we already live the shortage.”
Steadfast in their struggle, the women of the affected communities organized a peaceful protest outside the mayor’s office last September. “Our desperation is that they take her to another place,” warns Candelaria Álvarez, who at 76 is one of the strong defenders in the Pajales canton. However, to date the authorities have not given statements to the press or an official response to the communities, for which they have taken the case to the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, which is already addressing the complaint.
“We will continue fighting because the project is not from the mayor’s office or an NGO, it belongs to the three cantons,” says the leader. “We are poor, but we have the right to water and we are not ashamed to say that we will continue to fight until this is the case.” A battle that is that of many women to whom the price of this precious resource is more than a few euros; it is carrying a memory torn by decades of injustice.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.