Here’s the Deal with Water in El Salvador

There’s a carwash right across the street from my apartment building in the south side of San Salvador. Notice how carelessly I said south, as if that word meant something in a country so tiny no one ever bothers to learn the street names, let alone cardinal points. What I meant was that I live in a not-really-Vice documentary worthy-while-still-working-class side of town, meaning food delivery services still dare make their way up to our apartments after 8 pm, but I still have to plan my everyday life around ANDA’s service because we don’t have private water tanks.

You know how dogs are supposed to be able to hear some sounds humans can’t? I’ve become a master in figuring out whether the sound of running water comes from the carwash or from the neighbors downstairs, a survival skill when you’ve been going to bed leaving the faucets open, hoping that you’ll still get to store some water even if you fall asleep and miss your 3 am alarm to see if the service has been restored. The carwash has a huge water tank and the hoses they use make a steady, hissing sound, while water flowing through nearby faucets is louder. I’ve grown to resent the wasteful, hissing sound of the carwash hoses.

ANDA is the acronym for Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados, the autonomous, state-owned institution that manages both the water supply and the sewage systems in urban El Salvador. While they are legally supposed to provide water throughout the whole country, poor infrastructure makes a large number of rural communities impossible to reach. Even ANDA’s urban infrastructure is lacking and outdated, so much that there is not a moment when all of San Salvador’s Metropolitan Area (AMSS in Spanish) is simultaneously getting running water at the same time. The service has been unofficially rationed for decades now, but since there’s no official acknowledgement of the severity of the situation, there is no public schedule of when exactly it’s your turn to get water again.

You plan your everyday life, then, by whatever unofficial schedule ANDA’s dictating for the week. For example, there have been months when I’ve had to get up at 3 am twice per week to fill up my pila and use my washing machine to store some water for the toilet and to clean myself. Right now, I’m on a good strike: I can expect to come home and take a shower after work because the service hours for my side of town start by mid-afternoon all the way till 7 am, four days a week. I may run out of luck anytime, though. There is no notice on when our water supply will be cut off, there never has been. You just wake up, hop in the shower and hope for the best. Hours later you’ll see a tweet saying there’s been a “technical issue” and service has been suspended indefinitely. Again.

Monday, July 2 was one of those days. Until then, my part of town had been getting consistent, even good water supply for a whole week, all of its glorious seven days. Prior to that, our service was suspended for nine days with no notice. Keep in mind this is a *nice-ish* side of town; there are mansions just down my block. But this time it wasn’t just us: alarmed news anchors were saying virtually all of San Salvador and its 1.5 million people were left without running water after unidentified armed individuals had stolen some steel and iron parts from the structure that holds one of the city’s main supply pipes, forcing it to collapse. Why are main supply pipes out in the open, just down a quebrada, you ask? This is a third world country, okay. That’s why.

Anyway, ANDA’s briefing memo said repairs should be completed within a week. A week without water with no prior notice. In a city that’s been hitting 97°-100° F at noon every day for a month. ANDA called it a criminal sabotage, so the police got involved. The Attorney General’s office said there was no evidence of a crime, but rather a technical flaw in the design of the infrastructure that supported the pipe: all that water flowing through the pipe all the time, a paralegal said, makes the whole infrastructure shake all the time, making the screws loose until the whole thing collapsed on itself. Schools in the most affected areas had to close down for a few days; people were furious. ANDA’s president was summoned by the Legislative Assembly to explain what had happened. This new crisis smelled fishy, and it wasn’t because it needed a shower.

See, there’s something you need to understand. Water is our last public utility, the only one that survived the vapid privatization wave of the Post War administrations. Both the telephone service and electricity distribution were privatized despite the long, vicious fights fought by their unionized workers, which coincidentally enough where amongst the only unions to remain strong after the war, so neoliberalization efforts went after them with all they got, and succeeded. ANDA remained public due to a couple of crucial reasons: 1) both electricity and telephone services were more profitable, so neoliberal administrations thought they were bigger fish to fry; and 2) ANDA’s infrastructure and its fee schedule are so outdated that the administrations hoped the institution would collapse on itself. In a way, it has.

A recent campaign by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources said Cape Town has officially run out of water and that “could” happen to El Salvador too, so it gave some tips on how not to be wasteful on those three days a week you happen to get service. No acknowledgement of how the sugar cane industry has single-handedly polluted both the subsoil and the water sources of nearby communities, including an alarming rate of renal disease among its neighbors and workers. No mention of how a Coca-Cola subsidiary has terrorized its way into having exclusive access to a water source in Nejapa, less than 15 miles away from San Salvador, a  municipality where over 40% of its inhabitants don’t have access to running water. But sure, niña María, we’re all gonna be okay if you take shorter showers. One almost wants to laugh, but can’t. The situation is too obscene to be mocked.

While working-class San Salvador tries to figure out when and if they’ll be able to do laundry for the week, rural areas still heavily rely on polluted rivers, lagoons, lakes and streams to survive. ANDA services roughly half of the country’s rural population, who are then vulnerable to floods or heavy rains contaminating their community-operated wells. Poorer urban areas, including those controlled by gangs, might go months without a drop of water coming from their faucets, so they have to buy purified driking water ($2.5 USD for a 5-gallon jug) and hire water tank trucks on a regular basis. In a way, then, access to running water is already privatized.

Environmental and rural organizations have spent over a decade trying to get legislation passed in order to guarantee and regulate both the use and access to running water. Just like most initiatives vindicated by social movements, such demand was neglected by the ruling “Left” (laugh track.mp3) until the 2018 midterm elections and the subsequent loss of half of its seats in the Legislative Assembly, the Left’s worst electoral results since 1994. Foro del Agua has presented a draft proposing the creation of CONAGUA, a national consulting commitee in charge of formulating and overlooking the implementation of all water supply-related public policy. After the Right regained the majority of the Legislative Assembly, changes proposed to CONAGUA bring participation from the private sector to the table at the expense of representatives from civil organizations and municipalities, which has been read as an attempt to make way for the privatization of ANDA. The Right has also presented a couple of other toothless variations of said draft, to no avail.

As a result of such a boldly stupid but very on brand move, the largest heterosexual, non-partisan demonstration of the decade was held on June 9.

But us queers would very much like not to die from thirst too, kthnx.

A few days later, a smaller group led by the academic authorities of the University of El Salvador was attacked by the Legislative Assembly security guards as they dared to consider themselves citizens of a democratic regime (laugh track.flac, you deserve to hear some pristine laughter after that statement) and therefore able to enter a public building. Unrest has been growing ever since, as has stupidity. Universities, civil organizations and the Catholic Church (hashtag 17th Century) were invited to make their case in favor of the General Water Law before the Environmental Commission on July 10 and instead they were gaslighted as fuck and attacked by Right-wing legislators who accused them of creating “social chaos”, using cutlery while eating pupusas,  and murdering Selena.

The near future look complicated, to say the least. As former presidents Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes and their cabinets are facing trial for corruption and other fancier-sounding terms for theft, corruption within ANDA remains a can of worms everyone, including the most attention-seeking Attorney Generals  in the land, is too scared to open. No one dares imagine just how deeply corruption runs in ANDA; how many industries and companies have paid big bucks to keep their draining and polluting of water sources in the dark. No one dares to legislate about it either, or even acknowledge what we’ve all known for years now: that El Salvador is either running out of water or has, in fact, exhausted all hopes of sustainability. That things will only get worse from now on. That I will forever hate the sound of the hissing, wasteful hoses from that carwash across the street.



Hey there, I’m Virginia, a queer writer from El Salvador.  This website is a portfolio of my work. Feel free to take a look around. If you’ve enjoyed my article, feel free to send some coins my way: