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EL SALVADOR: Water Pipes Don’t Mean Water in the Tap

Raúl Gutiérrez

SOYAPANGO, El Salvador, May 30 2007 (IPS) - “We have been facing this problem for 36 years; sometimes we have a little, but we actually spend a lot more time without water,” says Ana Hortensia Cabrera, who is in fact among the lucky Salvadorans who have piped water in their home.

Cabrera, 59, was born here in the village of Los Vásquez, in the municipality of Soyapango, around 12 km from San Salvador. The district suffers from water shortages, particularly in the past two decades, due to unplanned urban sprawl and population growth.

“There are households that haven’t received water for two years, and when they do, it’s murky and yellowish,” says Cabrera, one of the leaders of the Comité de Contraloría de Consumidores y Usuarios de Soyapango (C-CUS), a local community consumers group.

That contrasts with the statistics offered by the government in its first report on fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), published in 2004, which stated that El Salvador had achieved the goal of reducing by half the number of households without access to clean water.

The report said that 24 percent of Salvadorans lacked access to clean water in 1991, compared to 12 percent in 2002. That included piped water in the home, wells or public faucets.

The international community is halfway to the 2015 deadline set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 to meet the commitment of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels, as well as seven other MDGs aimed at improving quality of life for the world’s people.

One of the three specific targets set by the MDG on ensuring environmental sustainability is to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Ana Ella Gómez of the non-governmental Consumer Defence Centre (CDC) questions the government’s statistics, telling IPS that the authorities often fiddle with the numbers.

“The problems of access, availability and quality of water are getting worse and worse,” says Gómez, who is in charge of research in the CDC, which is dedicated to lobbying for public access to basic services like power, telephones and water.

The installation of faucets and pipes “does not necessarily mean people actually have potable water,” she said.

According to U.N. statistics, around two million children around the world die from water-related diseases every year, and more than one billion people lack access to clean water.

Although there are no uniform statistics on coverage and availability of water in the country, civil society groups and international agencies like the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) say El Salvador ranks last in Latin America in terms of piped water coverage.

UNDP official Carlos Acevedo acknowledges that U.N. parameters for assessing the progress made by countries are “not particularly exacting” and that in some cases, rainwater catchment tanks are counted when measuring access to improved water sources.

Acevedo, a chapter coordinator for the UNDP Human Development Report on El Salvador, agreed that this country has met the MDG target on water access. But he added that over the last three years, the country has fallen behind again due to lack of continued public investment, waste of water resources, and population growth.

In addition, cases of corruption were discovered in the Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA), El Salvador’s main water and sanitation company. Carlos Perla, president of the enterprise from 1994 to 2002, is now in prison on charges of corruption.

Acevedo told IPS that water quality in this Central American country is a “disaster” and added that “no one is recommended to drink the water provided by ANDA or any other provider.”

ANDA claims to provide water treatment and distribution services to 4.4 million of El Salvador’s 6.5 million people.

Meanwhile, the number of people drinking bottled water is growing, and the companies that sell such water make an estimated 43 million dollars a year, according to UNDP figures. Good business, despite the fact that independent studies have warned that fecal coliforms have even been found in bottled water.

IPS received no response from the current president of ANDA, César Daniel Funes.

Several studies that have been recognised by the government estimate that 90 percent of surface water in the country is polluted, because there is no control on the dumping into rivers and lakes of wastewater from industry and agriculture or urban sewage, due to the lack of treatment systems in some urban and rural areas.

Acevedo criticised “the lack of public policies and regulations” aimed at addressing the problem, which he said is often due to the existence of “vested or private interests, or to shortsightedness, which stand in the way of comprehending that the question of water is strategic for the country.”

Currently, no company that draws on the underground aquifers for industrial use is taxed for water usage, and one-quarter of approximately 1,000 companies dump their wastewater and sewage with no treatment at all, according to a CDC report.

The president of the National Association for the Defence, Development and Distribution of Water at the Rural Level (ANDAR), Julio Menjívar, said the countryside has been “marginalised in all of the projects for potable water and sanitation.”

Menjívar estimates that 2.9 million of El Salvador’s seven million people live in rural areas, and that 1.5 million rural residents have no access to reliable water sources.

He also noted that a survey carried out by ANDAR in 532 communities found that “30 percent of surface sources of water have disappeared in the last 20 years” as a result of deforestation and erosion.

ANDAR, whose goal is community empowerment based on self-sustainability, is made up of 152 locally-organised water systems that directly or indirectly distribute water to more than 100,000 people in 863 communities. The water is piped from wells and other sources, for which ANDAR charges 6.80 dollars a month for 10 hours of supplies every two days.

“Although the water comes from sources in rural areas, it is urban areas that benefit, later dumping the polluted waters (in the form of sewage) into the countryside at no cost whatsoever,” said the community activist, who wondered how the country would develop if people lack something as basic as clean water.

Meanwhile, Rosa Juárez, a young resident of Los Vásquez, a poor neighbourhood of shacks made of sheet metal and rough boards, said that with the exception of Jan. 22 and May 10, no water has flowed through her pipes in the last two years, even though her bill continues to arrive from ANDA charging her 10.12 dollars a month – a small fortune in a country where roughly half of the population lives below the official poverty line.

“It is an illusion that El Salvador will meet the goal of access to clean water by 2015,” said Gómez.

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