Standing at the bottom of a narrow shaft of dirt and stones so deep it felt as though there was hardly air enough to breath, Florentino Diaz Cruz knew better than most people the value of water: He was tunneling for it, one of a crew of 16 men and women enlisted to dig a well so that students in this rural region of El Salvador would have a source of drinking water during their school day.
That was 15 years ago. Today, clean water in the small communities of El Recuerdo and Agua Zarca is as precious as ever—and still hard to get. There's no turning on the tap over a kitchen sink and letting the gallons gush. Here, many people trudge to a communal source, fill their jugs, and lug the heavy load home again. But seasonal flooding—sometimes hugely destructive and, with climate change, possibly becoming more severe—contaminates many of the area's hand-dug wells, exposing people to waterborne illnesses.
But now, with the help of Oxfam America and its local partner, PROVIDA, the well that Cruz worked so hard to dig on the school grounds in El Recuerdo is pumping enough clean water to satisfy the drinking needs not only of the students but of about 80 families in the surrounding area. The well is one of five "healthy wells" in southern Zacatecoluca province PROVIDA lined, surrounded with a filter, capped to ensure its cleanliness, and outfitted with a pump that sends water to a large tank for chlorination and storage.
"The families in this area are living in extreme poverty, living as subsistence farmers or low paid day laborers in the nearby sugar cane plantations," says Karina Copen, an Oxfam humanitarian program officer. "They face numerous challenges in having to adapt to the increased frequency and intensity of the flooding in their area. With access to a healthy well, they can at least know that in the next flood, they will have a safe source of water for their families and the good health that comes along with it."
Adaptations, such as these healthy wells, are essential for Salvadoran families living in the department of La Paz in the lower region of the Lempa River where seasonal rains, tropical depressions, and hurricanes, make it one of the country's most flood-prone areas.
Coupled with those natural hazards is the fact that communities in the region have significantly less access to improved water sources and sanitation than other parts of the country. The "healthy wells" along with 27 new composting latrines have been a boon to families in the area.
"Kids are getting sick less; families are healthier," says Santos Efrain Coto, one of the local leaders in El Recuerdo. "When they drank contaminated water they got diarrhea and parasites."
The improved wells are based on a model that's new to El Salvador and designed by an organization called Swiss Labour Assistance. Besides having their tops sealed with cement to prevent polluted flood waters from slopping in, the wells are lined with a type of plastic pipe, known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, that extends down into the aquifer. Packed around the outside of the lining is a filter of volcanic rock that prevents contamination from seeping through underground.
At the El Recuerdo school one day recently, teacher Ana Elsa Cubias describes how students used to bring their own water from home to drink during the school day. Now, the refurbished well guarantees them a clean supply right on the spot.
"They're drinking water from a protected source and the kids have water right in the classroom," says Cubias.
A short distance from the classrooms sits a large plastic tank, sky blue and able to hold 1,100 liters of water pumped fresh from the well. Chlorinated, the water from the tank flows to two taps standing just outside the gates to the school. They're accessible to whoever is driving or walking by. And to ensure the stored water stays safe for drinking, the water committee arranges to have the tank cleaned every couple of weeks—a task that falls to a child small enough to wiggle inside and scrub the interior walls with a brush and bleach.
"We make sure he bathes before he gets in the tank," adds Coto, the local leader.
In Agua Zarca, a few communities over, Jose Luis Funes Cruze says that before PROVIDA and Oxfam installed the new well, most of the local residents depended on their own backyard wells for drinking water—and that was a problem.
"The household wells take on a lot of rain water and a lot of filthy water when there's flooding," says Cruz, pointing in the direction of the polluted San Antonio River, which spills its banks during big storms. "The things people throw in—there are pigs up river. And the cheese factory is up river."
In the past, when their drinking supply has been contaminated, families in Agua Zarca have had to rely on the government or aid groups to truck in drinking water for them.
But now, with a new communal well their supply of drinking water is much improved.
"We're very grateful—the whole community is—to have that water," says Blanca Lidia Jiménez, who lives close to the well makes about six trips a day to fetch enough water for the seven people in her house. "We don't get sick so much when we drink the water from this well. The little kids would get swollen bellies, but with the new well that problem has been solved."
Still, the situation in Agua Zarca points to the challenges of providing clean water in this area. The community's new well was built on the only land available: next to a cow pasture—an arrangement that could be problematic during the wet season when rain sloshes manure about and allows it to seep into the groundwater.
The deep plastic lining on the well and its volcanic-rock filter help, though, says Guillermo Morán, a professor and researcher at the University of El Salvador's Earth Sciences Institute. He worked with Oxfam America and another of its partners, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), to evaluate the effectiveness of the wells while studying the health practices of families who use them.
The study is an important component of Oxfam's public health work: It promotes accountability and offers a different model for aid groups by linking their work with that of universities.
"We have the field experience and they have the technical expertise," says Miriam Aschkenasy, Oxfam America's public health specialist. "Together we're able to evaluate programs at a higher standard and at one that increases accountability."
In its draft report, HHI said that individuals who live in communities with "healthy wells" were less likely to have diarrhea and reported fewer cases of the illness during the time of the study. But the draft report also revealed that in two of those communities, some people were still using hand-dug wells for their drinking water while other people from places without "healthy wells" were making the trek to a community that had one to fetch their water.
"The study gives us insight in a way we couldn't have anticipated," says Aschkenasy. "It gives us an idea of where to focus in the future. We now know we need to find a way to encourage people who are still relying on the hand-dug wells to use the healthy ones instead. And it gives us great incentive to build more of them."