What does the fight for water have to do with migration in Central America?

Daysi Carrillo, an anti-mining activist, walks on a side stream of the Titihuapa River, a primary source of water in El Salvador. Photo: Oxfam/Elizabeth Stevens

In El Salvador, a 10-year struggle exposes why some families are facing conditions that threaten their survival.

Hours before dawn one morning in early November, a group of migrants assembled at the water’s edge of the Suchiate River in the Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán.

They looked across the way. In plain view was Mexico, the next frontier in their perilous journey to the US.

This river, approximately 100 miles long from its point of origin in the southern slopes of the Sierra Madres, was an obstacle to their freedom. But stronger forces were pushing them to cross the Suchiate that day on makeshift ferry boats made of planks of wood.

Photo: Oxfam/Elizabeth Stevens

Violence, hunger, and for others before them—a lack of water.

El agua continues to be the lifeblood of rural communities across Central America whose families rely on it for farming, fishing, and everyday life.

But across the region, water is in short supply—creating conditions that make it harder to provide for their families. In El Salvador, for example, 90 percent of surface water sources are contaminated and 600,000 Salvadorans in rural villages lack access to clean drinking water.

According to a 2017 report by the United Nations World Food Programme, household food production along the Dry Corridor of Central America has decreased due to poor rainfall and droughts linked to the El Niño climate phenomenon. In fact, the report found that the drought conditions that started in 2014 caused a "significant" uptick in irregular migration to the US, especially among younger and more vulnerable populations. It's a piece of the puzzle that reveals the converging political and socioeconomic conditions in the region that are driving people from their homes.

But for those families who stay, generations of leaders are now working together with Oxfam's help to reclaim their human right to water, secure their economic wellbeing, and rebuild the environmental health of their communities.

In other words—they’re fighting so they don’t have to leave.

“Fishing is not what it used to be in El Aguacate”

Hundreds of miles south of the Suchiate river, the El Aguacate river flows near Guatemala's southeastern border with El Salvador. A life-giving water source benefiting 14,000 people across 18 different communities, El Aguacate draws its freshwater at its northern-most inlet from the mighty Paz River before heading south toward the Garita Palmera Mangrove near the sea.

But over the years, as shown in a new video from Oxfam El Salvador, El Aguacate has been disappearing.

The Paz River is slowly turning away from the inlet, partly a result of climate change. Meanwhile, sugarcane producers along its twists and turns have dammed parts of El Aguacate and dug wells to divert some of the water for private use; community members along the river say these producers are putting excessive amounts of pesticides back into what remains, causing damage to their crops and putting their lives at risk.

“Twenty-eight years ago, El Aguacate used to flow here,” says Santos Baldizón, president of the El Aguacate watershed association, in the video. “It was 22 meters wide. Today, if we measure it, we might have four meters.”

The impacts are significant for people who live near the river and for the watershed’s ecosystem. Community members have less water for their crops during the dry season. Dwindling fresh water from the Paz River has increased the salinity of El Aguacate, hurting the soil for agricultural production. It also means the sea water at El Aguacate’s base has now taken over the riverbed and the mangrove basin, which has altered the biodiversity upon which the community relies, including reducing the number of fish in the water.

“It is a very big problem that the three communities near the lower area have because it affects everything,” said Maria Magdalena del Cid, a leader of the watershed association. “The mangrove, the households, the animals.”

“We take care of the forest”

With the help of Oxfam’s partner in the region–the Salvadoran Ecological Unit, known as UNES–local leaders in the watershed are working together to fight back.

They have joined forces on several projects, including the reforestation of the Garita Palmera Mangrove. This includes the replanting of red mangroves and small trees, which help to improve water quality by minimizing soil erosion, reducing the accumulation of sediment, and absorbing polluting chemicals.

“We take care of the forest,” said Blanca Reyes, another leader of the association. “We form pairs of women, and we go protect the forest so that it is not damaged, so the trees are not cut down.”

Blanca Reyes, a community leader in the El Aguacate watershed association. Photo: Oxfam/Tania Moreno

UNES has worked for years with leaders like Blanca to document the impact of the sugarcane industry on the health of the watershed and petition local authorities to take action. In early 2016, they sent letters demanding officials investigate how much water was being improperly diverted from the river by unauthorized construction projects.

All of these efforts to rebuild the sustainability of El Aguacate have helped fuel a larger 10-year effort by community leaders and associations across the country to protect the people’s right to water. Through the support of Oxfam’s work to hold the powerful accountable, they have advocated for legislation and institutional accountability in El Salvador respecting water as a resource that belongs to every Salvadoran.

This includes the introduction of a General Water Law citing water as a human right, constitutional reforms, and the passage of a law forbidding metal mining in El Salvador because of its adverse impacts on water availability and quality. Their cause against a newly introduced water privatization law has also gained traction among churches, learning institutions, and international supporters as well.

Curious for more about why access to water is critical to ending the injustice of poverty?

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