Water, Women and El Salvador: The Struggle and How to Help

Author: Jessica Lobo, May 2020.

“Salvadorans have created a General Water Law that would include a legal provision of the Human Right to Water in their constitution. This law explicitly acknowledges the gendered aspect of water and calls for open participation (Legislative Assembly of the Republic of El Salvador). Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go for women, water, and water management in El Salvador. The law has yet to be ratified by the Salvadoran government, and therefore, issues between women and water persist despite an awareness of the issue (Gies).”

Image from U.S. Department of Defense.


“Access to water is a gendered issue” (Clark 31). Yet, little mind has been paid to the gendered impact of water management practices and how women’s water struggles reproduce gender inequity (Anderson et al. 8-11). Women’s roles in the household, higher need for sanitation, and lack of participation in water management conversations are some reasons why they are disproportionately impacted when water is not accessible. Therefore, it is important to look at water through a gendered lens.

This disproportionate impact on women is especially true in regions where water is scarce. Latin America receives the most annual rainfall of any region in the world. However, due to poor water management policies, combined with drought and contamination, countries like El Salvador are facing a crisis when it comes to accessing clean water (Canales 2012, 1). In response to the worsening crisis, large numbers of Salvadorans are taking to the streets daily, pushing their government to enact better water management policies. For such management policies to come to fruition, many Salvadorans believe the legal acknowledgment of the Human Right to Water is necessary (Karunanthan and Spronk 2). For such a constitutional acknowledgment to effectively lead to the provision of water to all citizens in El Salvador, women need to have a larger role in water management within their communities. If women are not, at the very least, included in these conversations, water systems will only work for those whose voices are heard.

The women of El Salvador need water for their domestic and agricultural work as well as for sanitation. Without consistent access to clean water, Salvadoran women do not only lose precious time in acquiring clean water, but also money and assets. This is particularly the case when drought and food insecurity compel their husbands to, often unsuccessfully, migrate to the United States to try and send money back home. On top of all this, they also face disproportionate mental and physical health effects when the water they can access is contaminated. All of these issues ultimately contribute to the patriarchal system where women face a lower social status than their male counterparts. In order to break this cycle, the legal acknowledgment that Salvadorans are currently fighting for regarding access to water needs to include a gendered lens. Water management discussions must become accessible and safe for women to participate in and lead.

The Human Right to Water

Due to global water rights movements and campaigns, the United Nations (UN) affirmed the existence of the Human Right to Water in 2010 (Karunananthan 1). Such campaigns were led by a number of international NGOs and grassroots activists who refer to themselves as the Global Water Justice Movement. Their campaign was part of a broader strategy to challenge the power dynamics that produce and exacerbate uneven access to water (Karunananthan 1). The resolution is meant to address this, declaring that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the fully enjoyment of life and all human rights” (Canales 17). The UN believes that—legally—water, as a basic right, should be safe, accessible and affordable for both drinking and sanitation. Like all UN declarations and international laws, however, this right is not enforceable. Therefore, El Salvador has to enact the law within its constitution.

Before the UN passed this resolution in 2010, the most important source for water-related policy was the 1992 Dublin Conference on Water and the Environment (Canales 12). This conference established four guiding principles on water and sustainable development, two of which include:

  1. “Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels.
  2. Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.” (Canales 12)

At the moment, more attention needs to be brought to these principles. The Human Right to Water, as it is currently conceptualized, has the potential to address the gendered aspects of water insecurity (Clark 31). However, this can only be done if this right acknowledges the first Dublin Conference principle in conjunction with the second principle. Women need the right to meaningful and inclusive participation, and this should be included in the legislation El Salvador devises regarding the Human Right to Water (Clark 32).

Furthermore, Salvadorans have created a General Water Law that would include a legal provision of the Human Right to Water in their constitution. This law explicitly acknowledges the gendered aspect of water and calls for open participation (Legislative Assembly of the Republic of El Salvador). Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go for women, water, and water management in El Salvador. The law has yet to be ratified by the Salvadoran government, and therefore, issues between women and water persist despite an awareness of the issue (Gies).

El Salvador’s Water Crisis

There are many reasons why 98% of water sources in El Salvador are contaminated and unsafe for human consumption (Karunanathan and Spronk 1). It is also important to understand that “water scarcity in El Salvador is a political problem” (Karunanathan and Spronk 1). There are issues including urbanization, deforestation, overpopulation, and melting glaciers that all greatly contribute to the growing water insecurity (Canales 37). Yet, the failure of the State to properly regulate water use has allowed for overexploitation and pollution, making the problem much worse than it needs to be (Gies). The state operator for water, ANDA, is the primary provider of water and sanitation services, serving approximately 40% of Salvadorans. Yet, ANDA is one of the poorest performers for water services in the country due to issues around lack of funding, poor infrastructure and corruption (Karunanthan and Spronk 5). Moreover, ANDA does not have the jurisdiction to regulate or control the actions of other service providers, leaving a significant governance gap (Karunanthan and Spronk 5.) Since ANDA only serves 40% of the population, 60% of the population relies on unregulated private companies for its water (Karunanthan and Spronk 5). Such private companies, like Coca-Cola, tend to exploit local water supplies for their own interests rather than the interests of the population (Karunanthan and Spronk 5). 1000 companies intentionally dump their wastewater and sewage into El Salvador’s precious water supply with no mind at all to their worsening crisis, and they do so because they will face no consequences for their negligence. (Karunanthan and Spronk 5).

This long history of neglect has led El Salvador’s water crisis to become a “ticking bomb” (Karunanthan and Spronk 2). The World Health Organization measures water security through four factors: accessibility, quantity, quality, and reliability (Avelar and Lourdes 9). A gap or absence of any one of these factors signals water insecurity and as displayed above, El Salvador is lacking on all four counts. While men in El Salvador are also affected by the water crisis through these four factors, women are impacted disproportionately. These disproportionate effects on women will be detailed in the following sections.  

Domestic Role

Salvadoran women are typically in charge of all domestic work, which involves the use of a lot of water. When water is scarce, gathering is an enormous task. The unpaid labor that takes place in the household includes cooking, cleaning, laundry, bathing children, and caring for sick family. Women almost exclusively carry out these duties in El Salvador (Bennett et al. 110). Water scarcity and poor water quality complicate these tasks, as water is necessary for all of them (Bennett et al. 110). Therefore, if safe drinking water is not easily accessible within the household, then someone—who is almost always a woman or a girl—is responsible for carrying home multiple pails of water from the community faucet or well (Bennett et al. 110). This water gathering is incredibly labor-intensive as the pails are heavy and the journeys, especially for women in rural areas, can be long (Canales 7). Even if they live close to a clean water source, waiting in line and filling the container takes ample time (UN Human Rights Council 17). It is likely they would also have to make this journey multiple times a day depending on how much water they are able to carry per trip and how big their families are (UN Human Rights Council 17). Moreover, while some women have access to transportation in urban areas to help meet their family’s water demand, most women in rural areas of El Salvador do not (Avelar and Lourdes 82). Due to this unequal division of labor, women tend to have a more intimate relationship to water, and thus are more affected by water insecurity (Avelar and Lourdes 69).

The task of walking long distances to collect water is not only labor-intensive, but it also has the potential to be incredibly dangerous for Salvadoran women, socially and physically. Water collection helps to reproduce a system in which women are second-class citizens. Since women spend significant time collecting water each day, a trickle effect is created in which they are ultimately denied a right to education and community participation (Canales 7). This is an issue for women all over the world; on a global scale women and girls lose up to 40 billion hours per year gathering water for their homes (Clark31). When girls do not receive an education, they lack the resources to create a different and likely more prosperous future for themselves where they can focus on integrating themselves into the paid workforce, raise their social status and exercise more power. Furthermore, water gathering does not only pose social dangers for Salvadoran women, but also physical dangers, especially for women in rural El Salvador. When the closest clean water source is longer than a brisk walk away, they can potentially become victims of attacks, either from wild animals or gang violence (Avelar and Lourdes 4). Therefore, women’s domestic roles have forced them into positions where they face a greater burden from El Salvador’s water crisis than men.


Since access to water is a gendered issue, access to sanitation is as well (Clark 2015, 31). Women and girls pay the heaviest price for poor sanitation in regard to health and safety (UN Women Watch 3). Firstly, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating have a higher need for sanitation services (Clark, 31). If there are no safe and accessible toilets nearby, women who are menstruating are forced to defecate in the open, which makes hygiene management more difficult overall (O’Reilly 20). Pregnancy can often lead to a greater frequency of urination and constipation, as well as less mobility (O’Reilly 20). Again, open defecation is the only option if pregnant women do not have access to a toilet. This is prevalent in poorer countries like El Salvador, and it has “serious consequences including loss of life, health, and loss of wages due to illness” (O’Reilly 19). Additionally, when safe toilets are not available, women and girls face high risks of sexual assault (O’Reilly 20). The fear of sexual assault and harassment often leads to poorer health as women and girls prevent themselves from defecating in the open for unhealthy periods of time (Clark 31).

Furthermore, much like women’s domestic roles, women’s greater need for sanitation services also impacts their lack of power within patriarchal structures. When toilets and outhouses are not easily accessible for a household, it indicates that women within that household have no decision-making power or control over the household’s finances (O’Reilly 20). Men are the usual authority over household income and are able to decide for that accessible toilets are not a necessary investment when—for women—they are (O’Reilly 20). Furthermore, when schools lack sufficient sanitation facilities, “girls are often kept home and miss out on the opportunities that education can provide;” much like how they have to miss out on education due to water gathering responsibilities (Clark 31). When girls are denied education, they are more likely to continue to be burdened by water struggles in their future.

Agriculture and Irrigation

Beyond their domestic roles, many rural Salvadoran women farm and irrigate. They make up approximately 30% of the rural labor force in El Salvador, and yet, they are rarely acknowledged as a legitimate part of the agricultural sector (Bennett et al. 110).  Irrigation is understood in terms of production and economic efficiency, and as a result, is strongly associated with masculinity (Bennett et al.110). Men are understood to be leaders in irrigation and agriculture largely due to their property rights (Canales 22). When women are seen farming or irrigating, it is assumed to be “on behalf of their husbands” who are the “real” irrigators and farmers (Canales 113). “The very fact that a woman is doing the job is enough to qualify the work as ‘non-irrigation’” (Canales 113). However, when husbands migrate, women become the “principle basic food producers, who work to conserve soil and water, and assume traditional male responsibilities” in a context where they are considered “non-irrigators” (Canales 29).

As a result, women are often excluded from community discussions regarding irrigation systems. When investments are put toward “improved” irrigation systems, these new systems are made by and for men, thus excluding women irrigators (Bennett et al. 111). For instance, irrigation schedules that work for men often do not work for women who—in addition to their agricultural work—have to manage their domestic chores (Bennett et al. 111). Therefore, women in the agricultural sector of El Salvador face a system that makes farming and irrigation a more difficult task, never allowing them to fully integrate into the sector.

Drought and Male Migration

Migration is a growing trend in El Salvador and in the neighboring countries of Guatemala and Honduras, as these countries are part of the Dry Corridor. In fact, the Dry Corridor, characterized by extreme drought, almost completely covers El Salvador (Gies).  This not only puts pressure on El Salvador’s already precious water supply, but also more pressure on the women of the area in terms of their domestic and agricultural responsibilities (Gies). To add to these growing pressures, when the drought worsens, food insecurity emerges as well (UN World Food Programme 5). Men, who are seen as being in charge of agriculture, are often forced to migrate elsewhere, usually to the United States, to find a job and send money back to their families (UN World Food Programme 13). 79% of emigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are men (UN World Food Programme  5). However, women are the ones left behind to work on tasks their husbands were in charge of, adding to their growing domestic and agricultural responsibilities (Bennett et al. 111). Since agricultural work is not seen as a woman’s domain, women continue to have no say in irrigation discussions of the community (Bennett et al. 111).

Physical and Mental Health Effects

Similar to how El Salvador’s water crisis shapes the lifestyles and statuses of Salvadoran women, it can also, potentially, impact their physical health. As discussed in the previous section, the journey to collect water can put women at risk of attacks from sexual assault, gang assaults or animal attacks. During or after torrential rain that frequently hits the country, these long walks can also lead women to hurt themselves by slipping or falling (Avelar and Lourdes 24). In a study conducted by Avelar and Lourdes where they interviewed women from the rural community of Santo Tomas in El Salvador, one of the most common feelings they associated with their water access problems was “danger” (59). They are hyperaware of the fact that their daily water routes are not safe for their physical health. Contrastingly, none of the males interviewed for the study reported that they associate “danger” with water access (Avelar and Lourdes 59). The physical toll of carrying heavy water pails multiple times a day often overworks and exhausts women’s bodies as well (Munoz et al. 12). Additionally, women who engage with uncovered tanks and other water- exposed containers are highly susceptible to mosquito-borne diseases, making water collection more dangerous for their physical health (Munoz et al. 13).

Women’s mental health also suffers greatly due to El Salvador’s water crisis. In Avelar and Lourdes’ study, they conclude that the women of Santo Tomas “shared sentiments of despair, worry and discomfort in the daily challenges they face when providing water for their families” ( 22). The most common feelings women associated with their water struggles include, and are not limited to: “worry, affliction, anguish, dangerous, expensive, [and] distress” (Avelar and Lourdes 58). Almost half of the female respondents state their water struggles to be “worrisome” whereas none of their male counterparts reported feeling the same (Avelar and Lourdes 58). The main sentiment men felt was tiredness in comparison to the plethora of negative emotions that women felt in regard to the issue (Avelar and Lourdes 59).

Community Leadership

Guaranteeing that women will have access to safe and comfortable community discussions regarding water management would aid them in their water struggles immensely. Currently, women are excluded from these discussions. Men are the ones primarily involved in the decision making of water projects, managing the formal rights to the control of water (Avelar and Lourdes 17; Canales 7). Men’s roles in the water world help to perpetuate their high status, while women’s roles perpetuate their secondary status. According to a report on El Salvador by the UN Human Rights Council: “men play a greater role on rural boards and make the most important decisions” (17). In fact, 70% of members of the rural water boards are men (UN Human Rights Council 18). Although there is 30% female representation, the environment on these boards is not open and as safe for women to speak candidly so that their participation is fully effective (UN Human Rights Council 18). For example, in El Salvador, women who rise to positions of leadership receive a higher number of death threats (UN Human Rights Council 18). General members of these boards, as well as the female activists fighting for the Human Right to Water, face constant danger for speaking out. “Threats, murders, and forced displacements are seen throughout Central America as they are the common denominator to silence women who fight” for their right to water (Munoz et al. 5).

Another reason why women have difficulty speaking up is that many do not have the time. Again, especially if their husbands have migrated, Salvadoran women are tasked with the responsibility of housework, childcare, agricultural production and irrigation, and water collection. Therefore, there also needs to be an ideological shift surrounding the economic roles of men and women. Men need to help the women and girls in their family bear the water collection responsibilities as well as childcare and housework. This would allow their wives, daughters and sisters more time to participate in water management discussions.  

“Women already know about water management [and their]…knowledge, experiences and priorities will enrich policy and planning” in El Salvador’s water sector (Bennett et al. 109). When only men are able to openly, fully and candidly participate in water management, valuable opportunities to design the most effective community water systems are lost (Bennett et al. 113). When women are given the same opportunities in water management as men, most Salvadoran women will benefit directly, and their families will likely benefit indirectly (Bennett et al. 111).

It is clear that there is national awareness regarding the issues touched upon in this paper. The translation of El Salvador’s General Water Law draft from March 22, 2012 states: “the acceptance and implementation of this principle [the Human Right to Water] requires effective policies that address the needs and interests of women and strengthen their capacity to participate at all levels in policies and programs on the use and management of water resources, including decision-making and the execution by the means that they determine” (Legislative Assembly of the Republic of El Salvador). Therefore, El Salvador’s conception of the Human Right to Water explicitly calls for an accessible, open, safe and cooperative atmosphere for women in water management. Nonetheless, the law has yet to be ratified, and with the current political situation, it is unlikely it will be in the near future. Thus, current community boards, anti-privatization and human rights activists should not only work to ratify the law but strive to make water management discussions a safe and open space for women to fully and comfortably participate in, because when they do—everyone benefits.


Water is essential to life. Yet women throughout El Salvador suffer more than their male counterparts from El Salvador’s worsening water crisis. Due to women’s domestic roles, they are forced to spend numerous hours daily fetching water, denying them time to gain social power. Women, especially menstruating and pregnant women, have a higher need for adequate sanitation services for not only hygienic purposes, but safety as well. When they lack such services, the consequences can be severe, whereas adequate sanitation services are not as necessary for men. The idea that women only partake in domestic roles is untrue for many women in rural El Salvador. However, because of this misconception, women are denied a say in any agricultural and irrigation decisions, making agricultural tasks easier for men and harder for women. Again, this perpetuates the cycle of women struggling with water issues more than men. Moreover, when drought destroys a household’s crops to the point of extreme food insecurity, men often feel they have no choice but to migrate to the United States. In doing so, they leave behind an even bigger domestic workload for their wives to handle. The other area where women suffer disproportionately from water scarcity is in their mental and physical health. Their physical health is in danger largely due to the risks of water collection, which include assaults, slipping, exhaustion and mosquito-borne diseases. When it comes to mental health, Salvadoran women face more mental and emotional distress than their male counterparts surrounding the water crisis due to the greater number of water-related responsibilities they hold in comparison.

Overall the future of Salvadoran women’s relationship to water and the water crisis depends on whether they are given opportunities to openly, safely, candidly and comfortably contribute to water management discussions. While the legal acknowledgment of the Human right to Water will likely help the situation, action needs to be taken within communities immediately. Both the men and women of El Salvador must work together to ensure women have the time and are made comfortable to fully contribute in the water sector. If this is addressed, El Salvador’s water crisis may cease to exist for future generations.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kim, Barbara Clow, and Margaret Haworth-Brockman. “Carriers of Water: Aboriginal women’s Experiences, Relationships, and Reflections.” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 60, 2013, pp. 11-17. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.10.023.

Avelar Portillo, Lourdes Johanna. “In every cántaro of water: Women’s water access struggles in rural el salvador.” Ph.D. diss., California State University, Long Beach.

Bennett, Vivienne, Sonia Dávila-Poblete, and María Nieves Rico. “WATER AND GENDER: THE UNEXPECTED CONNECTION THAT REALLY MATTERS.” Journal of International Affairs vol. 61, no. 2, 2008, pp. 107-XV.

Canales, Paola J. “Women and water: Gender, privatization, and water rights in Latin America.” Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University.

Clark, Cristy. “Does the Human Right to Water Address the Gendered Nature of Water Poverty.” Human Rights Defender vol. 24, no. 3, 2015, pp. 31-32.

De Larios, Silvia, Roberto Duarte and Oscar Diaz. “La gestión del agua en El Salvador: Desafíosy respuestas institucionales.” Translated by Giada Ferruci. PRISMA, 2001, pp. 1-61.

Gies, Heather. “Once lush, El Salvador is dangerously close to running dry.” International Women’s Media Foundation. https://www.iwmf.org/reporting/once-lush-el-salvador-is-dangerously-close-to-running-dry/

Kemp, Deanna, Carol J. Bond, Daniel M. Franks, and Claire Cote. “Mining, Water and Human Rights: Making the Connection.” Journal of Cleaner Production vol. 18, no. 15, 2010, pp. 1551-1560. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.06.008.

Karunananthan, Meera and Susan Spronk. “Water at the Heart of El Salvador’s Struggle Against Neoliberalism.” Blue Planet Project. http://www.blueplanetproject.net/wordpress/wp content/uploads/ElSalvador-Report-0315.pdf

Munoz, Marta, Awex Mejia Cipriano, Elias Raymundo, Azalia Espinoza, Jazziel Bacca and Martha Silva. “Women defending life and natural resources: Cases in Central America.” Friends of the Earth International, 2018, pp. 2-40.

O’Reilly, Kathleen. “From toilet insecurity to toilet security: creating safe sanitation for women and girls.” WIREs Water vol. 3, 2016, pp. 19-24.

“Proposed Draft General Water Law presented to the Legislative Assembly on the initiative of the President of the Republic through the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources.” Legislative Assembly of the Republic of El Salvador. Translated by Giada Ferucci.

 “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation on his mission to El Salvador.” United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change.” UN Women Watch: Information Resources on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women. 2009. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/

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