Reflections on the water crisis in El Salvador and beyond

There is a stretch of the Pan-American highway heading west out of San Salvador where each end of the socio-economic spectrum in El Salvador is vibrantly evident.

While moving on the 4-lane highway through the town of Antiguo Cuscatlán, to the right you see three massive shopping malls: MultiPlaza, Las Cascadas and La Gran Via, bridged together by fast food restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Tony Roma's. In these malls there are high rank fashion stores, an Apple Store, and luxurious restaurants.

The enormous complex was built on top of what was once the Finca del Espino, a stretch of undeveloped land at the foot of the San Salvador volcano with diverse flora and fauna, and the site of the primary water tables that supply water to urban San Salvador.

Sometimes when I pass places like this, I feel like I am in the state of Florida... Miami or Tampa, places where I would go to visit family or Disney World as a kid.

But I'm not. I'm in El Salvador, where people face a completely different reality, including environmental crisis, lack of water, poverty, a long history of systemic violence, and the complications of a post-war society. I don't think that the 17-dollar steak dinners at Tony Roma's have much relevance to the majority of Salvadorans' lives.

Directly across the way from this concentration of shopping malls, on a tiny slice of land flanked on each side by the Pan-Americana west-bound and east-bound lanes, lies the squatter community La Cuchilla.

The 150 families who reside in La Cuchilla live in shacks constructed from scavenged pieces of scrap metal, wood, and plastic, tightly packed on top of each other and on the edge of a ravine that cuts through it.

La Cuchilla is one of hundreds of squatter communities in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. Most residents of these communities are unemployed or underemployed. Some communities have electricity and share a communal water tap. Others do not have either.

People I have met from these communities have told me that most of them have come from rural areas to San Salvador to look for work. Unable to keep up with the costs of maintaining a household and a job (rent, electricity, water, and transportation) with the low wages they earn as vendors, house cleaners, or retail clerks, they go to live in these communities to cut costs.

Since 2006, La Cuchilla has faced threats of displacement by the local mayor’s office, backed by the development company Grupo Roble which constructed and administers the malls. The mayor says residents of La Cuchilla are living in a high-risk zone and should be relocated, and Grupo Roble says the area surrounding their shopping malls should be “beautified”.

It was precisely in this spot, between the massive shopping complex and La Cuchilla, where on the morning of March 22nd, 2010, more than 500 people from various communities in urban and rural El Salvador convened to celebrate World Water Day and to call for a national political commitment to the protection and conservation of this invaluable resource.

The coordinators of the action chose this location to draw attention to the ongoing destruction and deforestation of what remains of the Finca Del Espino and nearby mountain range El Bálsamo, San Salvador volcano, and the San Jacinto hill.

The participants also presented demands that water be left out of the current free trade negotiations between Central America and the European Union, the Acuerdo de Asociación, and called for immediate approval of a law to protect water resources in the country.

The event was beautiful. People of all ages and various places came together with banners and flags, music and dancing to denounce and claim their rights to water. These are people who wait until the certain hour or day that water runs out of the communal tap, walk long distances to carry water in large plastic containers, and wash clothes by hand in the closest river.

Last night my friend Sonia told me that she goes every six months to the laboratory to test for intestinal parasites and bacterial infections caused by contaminated water and food. Every time she goes she tests positive for amoebas.

Amoebas cause diarrhoea, fever, fatigue, and in extreme cases, dysentery, hepatitis, and abscesses. As a result of these constant infections, she takes strong antibiotic medicines that cause additional physical pain and discomfort.

This is just a small part of what it means to live without access to clean, potable water.

This week my co-worker from Unidad Ecologica Salvadoreña, UNES, is in Cochabamba at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth. She is meeting with social movement leaders from throughout the global South to strategise and move forward in defence of the lands and natural resources of southern countries, in the face of the failure of international climate talks in Copenhagen.

Knowing that people who are truly impacted by climate change and water scarcity are coming together, coordinating, dreaming, demanding, and organising, both here in El Salvador as well as in Cochabamba, gives me a hope that we can construct a different reality for people in all parts of the world.

It really is a simple idea to live in harmony and respect with nature. All we need to do is listen.


The robust and proud vitality of Latin American communities in organising themselves is one of the most inspirational social developments on our planet at the moment. Bringing poetic and spiritual ways of looking at the world to a fearless political engagement is something our restrained northern culture could learn from.

Clare Jeffery
Progressio contributor