In the hospital where she works, the nurse follows all official health guidelines to prevent the coronavirus: she washes her hands frequently, rubs her hands with gel sanitizer, and sports a mask. She stays faithful to the routine until she gets home, but only that far.
The Nurse—which is what we’ll call her; she asked for anonymity to avoid repercussions—works in the Saldaña National Hospital. As the only public hospital specializing in pulmonology, the study of the lungs and respiratory system, Saldaña is indispensable to the Salvadoran health system. Upon her return each day, the hospital instructs her to clean her shoes with bleach in a bucket. But at home, in the San Ernesto neighborhood of the populous city of Soyapango, that’s impossible. By the time the government decreed a national quarantine on March 11, she and her neighbors had already spent two weeks without running water.
That’s why she keeps her dry shoes in a plastic bag behind the grille fence that shields her home, until she must set out for another shift at the hospital. “You’re supposed to wash your shoes and clothing coming in from the street, but you can’t do that, because—what about the water?” she asked indignantly. “I leave those shoes outside, but I can’t wash them.”
Some of the most important and common advice to prevent infection from the coronavirus is to wash hands with soap and water. The precaution is paramount for hospital workers, and in particular for hospitals specializing in respiratory infections like Saldaña, where patients are quarantined. “They tell you there to wash your hands constantly. But how? And that you need to change your clothes constantly. I can’t wash my hands as often as I should. How could I?” insisted The Nurse.
On Saturday, March 14, the day that the state of exception took effect, The Nurse’s alarm sounded as usual, 4 a.m. She wasn’t scheduled to go in early that morning, but she stayed awake after discovering something was happening that hadn’t happened in 17 days in San Ernesto: the water was running. Not knowing how long the rarity would last, The Nurse seized the moment to wash some of her clothes.
Renting a home in San Ernesto, situated across from the bus stop along Route 7C, which connects to San Salvador, costs between $150 and $200 per month. It’s a neighborhood of bankers, government workers, and students, some with their own car. In these parts, the front gates surrounding the homes remain locked. It’s not illogical: the neighborhood sits between Bosques de Prusia and La Coruña, and close to Santa Gertrudis and Los Santos—all neighborhoods with rough-and-tumble reputations, despite the falling homicide figures across Soyapango under this administration. But there are other indicators of violence. Three blocks from The Nurse’s house, a tag: MS. Although they go unmentioned among the neighbors, the letters give away the gang that dominates the area. In unfenced alleys, it’s not uncommon to see young people posted at the corners, keeping watch for the gang. To find groceries or amusement, people from San Ernesto often travel to the closest mall, Plaza Mundo. The mall sits fewer than two miles away, but the eternal traffic along Bulevar del Ejército makes for a ten minute trip by car. The mall is located in a fairly average middle-to-lower-class neighborhood.
On February 27, the last time water ran from the faucets in San Ernesto, the number of global COVID-19 cases was 83,700. When The Nurse found the water running again, that number had almost doubled: 153,600. But the water wouldn’t last long. The thin stream falling from the faucets lasted from midnight on Saturday, March 14 to 9 the next morning. That next day, as soggy clothing hung from lines, several of The Nurse’s neighbors, like Liduvina Cornejo, 68, rubbed sleep from their eyes. They had spent all night filling as many buckets and bottles with water as possible, as long as it was available.
While El Salvador lept into action in response to the coronavirus on Wednesday, March 11, certain underlying conditions in the country—that have been compounding for decades—preclude quick solutions. Washing hands is recommended and necessary, but it is useless advice for people from San Ernesto who have no regular access to clean water. In 2016, there were roughly 600,000 people in El Salvador under similar conditions, according to the United Nations. The prospects for a country responding to coronavirus with so many people lacking the means to take the most basic health measures are not bright. These are the same people who took to collecting larvae-infested water in July of last year, when the Ministry of Health declared the country a “danger zone” for the mosquito-transmitted dengue fever. With no other option, they collected what water they could. When water runs, these people fill jars, bowls, and basins. They treasure little bags of abate, a non-toxic granular insecticide that kills mosquito larvae when placed in water. During the 2000 Salvadoran cholera outbreak, their parents also struggled to wash their hands regularly. Scourges come and go, but water scarcity remains.
Living without water gets in the way of many standard daily tasks—ones that are now central to the current emergency, such as washing hands. “As we wash our hands, we collect the same water in a bucket to add to our baths,” explained The Nurse’s neighbor, Gabriela Martínez, 20. They do the same with the laundry water. The water continues to be recycled—or rather, repurposed, in the best sense of the word—until what is left scarcely looks like vital fluid. Another neighbor reused the water from washing her hands to water her plants. The Nurse’s flower pot of lilies dried out for lack of sustenance.
For other daily activities, like brushing teeth, cooking, and allowing pets to drink, residents of San Ernesto use bottled water. They also buy and reuse disposable plates, cups and cutlery to avoid washing dishes. Toward the end of 2019, a new custom emerged: leaving the faucets open, just in case. An act of faith.
In January, before the coronavirus emerging in China became a global obsession, water-related problems were already afflicting residents in this part of Soyapango. That month, the metropolitan area of San Salvador announced a crisis when the public water supply became contaminated. Back in Soyapango, the Nurse’s neighbor, a 35-year-old bank employee, and his daughter contracted stomach problems. He has been among the most vocal in reporting the situation to the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA in Spanish), the autonomous agency tasked with administering the Salvadoran water supply.
“Before July of 2019, we would get water every other day. Since January, we’ve had no idea. It comes for a few hours one day a week and then it comes every 15 to 17 days,” he said. “You call 915 (ANDA’s hotline), you send emails, and you eventually take to Twitter, because that’s apparently the place to submit formal complaints,” he quipped, alluding to the Bukele administration’s use of social media. His complaint isn’t new. In fact, he has been filing complaints since December 2018, when water was flowing every three days. He’s spent 15 months in this unhealthy routine.
Yet he can’t understand why there are neighbors a street away in Bosques de Prusia, or behind his community, in La Coruña, who do have access to water. It’s complicated, explained an ANDA spokesperson to El Faro.
San Ernesto is a “critical area” that depends on the Lempa River system, which in turn depends on the Las Pavas water plant, the same that caused the aqueduct crisis in January. Given that Las Pavas is not yet running at half-capacity since its restoration in January, San Ernesto is relegated to the “tail of the system” under a policy of water partitioning, together with other critical areas like San Martín, Altavista, San Bartolo, and Santa Gertrudis.
Among other solutions, ANDA is exploring the possibility of repurposing a well, an idea currently marred in legal difficulty. The well for San Ernesto is located on private property. ANDA was able to place a functioning well in La Coruña, and in Bosques de Prusia, reserves are supplemented with water from another community, Prados de Venecia. San Ernesto and La Coruña haven’t made a similar arrangement, according to ANDA, because they have simply not come to an agreement.
All this to say that there is no immediate solution for the water shortage facing San Ernesto. ANDA has medium-term plans: after successfully negotiating to drill six new wells, it will propose eight more, funneling water to critical areas. It will also focus on restoring capacity to Las Pavas. So far, at least, there’s been little movement.
On Wednesday, March 11, ANDA employees traveled along Morelos Avenue, the street that is home to these houses in San Ernesto, passing out packs of bottled water. By Saturday, two of those packs lay empty on a chair in the home of Patricia, 45, a tortilla vendor. Every day, she prepares over 300 pounds of maize dough, a task requiring five barrels of water. “If I didn’t scavenge, there would be no tortillas,” she explained. “A neighbor, who owns an auto repair shop, gives her water. But even so, the lack of running water has taken an economic toll on Patricia. “I would make all sorts of traditional cuisine: yuca, nuégados, atol, chilate, riguas, tamales. But for that, you need water, and dishes get dirty,” she went on. That’s why she put those dishes aside some eight months ago.
As she recounts her troubles, a government ad on preventing coronavirus sounds on the radio, stressing the importance of washing hands. Patricia doesn’t mince words. “I’ve heard that in the news, but how the hell are we supposed to wash them without water, and why would we let it go to waste?”
Living without running water is not cheap. For the family of Gabriela Martínez, who lives with her mother and grandmother in San Ernesto, their weekly search for water has a certain cadence. Two demijohns of bottled water for a cooler: $6. Buying a supply from a private water distributor: $10. When doing laundry in another home is impossible, laundromat services: $5, twice per week. In total, $26 per week and just over $100 per month. That’s for those who can foot the bill, in a country with a minimum salary of $300 per month and where the “basket of goods,” a measure of the cost of vital products and services, is $590.
The neighbors of San Ernesto are from the middle class. But even then, they’re bracing for the pandemic. In El Salvador, two million people live below the poverty line, begging the question of how they will navigate the impending scourge.
In El Salvador, the way people brace for crises is marked, like many other situations, by inequality. The recurring scenes of people excessively buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer in supermarkets have played out since March 11. “Those who have the money will be able to go shopping and hoard whatever they like. But what about the rest of us? No, not the case. You have to wait for your normal salary and make do with whatever money you have,” said the banker. “At least, I won’t be spending all my money on toilet paper when food and water are the most important,” said The Nurse.
“All we’re asking is for them to help us clean this up—for Mr. Frederick Benítez (president of ANDA) to come, see what’s wrong, and devise a solution to bring potable water to our communities with dignity, just like in Escalón and the Campestre Club, where they have enough to fill a pool,” continued the banker, in reference to some of the wealthiest enclaves of the country just 11 miles away.
For the record, water in excess isn’t even that far away.
Just as the clock struck noon on Saturday and the banker, The Nurse, and their neighbors began their next indefinite drought, a mile away, in the Plaza Mundo shopping center, an enormous fountain spanning two floors spewed a cascade of water.
*Translated by Roman Gressier