Robinson Ford

August 14, 2014

In order to understand the water issues faced by El Salvadorians, one must first begin to understand El Salvador. Plagued by instability and lack of infrastructure, El Salvador oftentimes struggles to provide its citizens with their basic needs. Especially in rural areas, families do not have access to either clean water or proper sanitation. Unfortunately, these issues go hand in hand.

El Salvador is also home to torrential downpours during the rainy season (May to October). The region of El Salvador where I am located is also quite mountainous. The large number of hills and valleys work to channel any water that falls into a single location, effectively routing all the rain into certain streams. Every time a torrential downpour occurs, any loose object is swept downstream. This ensures that the number of possible contaminants in any body of water is astronomical. Any pollutant, excrement, or debris is simply transported downstream until it either gets stuck somewhere or reaches the Pacific Ocean.

Duke team members on the way to see a local spring.

The waterways of El Salvador act as one of the primary methods of waste disposal. Especially in rural populations, any sort of waste is simply dumped into the waterways and meanders downstream, where it joins the trash of countless households. At first realization of this, you are shocked, basic hygiene dictates to keep contaminants out of your drinking supply. Then you remember that no other simple options exist. Infrastructure in rural areas simply is not good enough; piping is not being planned to extend to outlying communities within the foreseeable future. What other options do the rural inhabitants of El Salvador have? One of the only reasonable ideas is the construction of pit latrines, simple holes in the ground for waste to be deposited. However, these are very laborious to dig, and a massive time investment. Thus, over the years, the residents of El Salvador have taken to the easiest route for waste disposal. Throw it into the nearest body of water, and then it simply becomes your downstream neighbor’s problem.

Problems of this scale simply cannot be addressed on an individual scale. Changing this method of waste disposal requires an entire way of life to be changed. Massive cultural change needs to occur in order for waste disposal to cease being a problem. The expansion of infrastructure is not “just out of sight over the horizon,” the rural communities of El Salvador need to turn inwardly in order to improve their quality of life. Real change in quality of life is going to originate on a smaller, community level.

Installing plates into our sedimentation system

Installing plates into our sedimentation system.

One of the goals during my time in El Salvador is to open these channels of discussion at a community level. The community we were working in sat directly downstream of another community, who constantly dumped trash and waste into the water source. They got their water from a spring, and after use, dumped it directly into the nearby stream. Because the upstream community had no incentive to keep the water heading downstream clean, there was not much that the downstream community could do. Without some financial incentive or a cultural shift, nothing is going to change in this equation.

Back downstream, we had completed construction of the water tank in good time, ensuring that the community, if nothing else, would have a method of storing water for the dry season. However, this water was not especially clean. Based on the incoming water quality, we deemed the water completely unsuitable for human consumption, and realized that simply no method of filtration within our means was going to rectify that situation. We decided to reserve the water for washing clothes and bathing. In order to make the water more useful for these things, we began the construction of a sedimentation system.

Team members discuss the sedimentation system with a member of the local community.

Team members discuss the sedimentation system with a member of the local community.

We decided to implement a plate settler system, a method not seen very often in rural settings. The plate settler consisted of inclined metal plates that are intended to stop the flow of sediment particles within the water. This system should stop many of the larger contaminants within the flow of water, greatly reducing the turbidity of the stream’s water.

The plate settler was constructed with aid from the local community, and should serve admirably in helping to relieve the pressure put on this small community. More details of our piping systems as well as local community work will follow.