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El Salvador Print
Flag of El SalvadorBetween a growing economy and an alarming water situation
By Maeggi Hieber , El-Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country of Latin America. Despite its growing economy and its progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, El Salvador is still among the 10 poorest countries of Latin America and faces an alarming drinking water and sanitation situation. The lack of wastewater treatment and an intensive agricultural industry are causing high levels of contamination of surface and drinking waters. Therefore, local NGOs are implementing cheap household technologies to improve the water quality and health situation of the rural population.

A technician from the local NGO Pro-Vida analizing the water quality of a public spring.
Fig. 1: A technician from the local NGO Pro-Vida analizing the water quality of a public spring.
(Photo: M. Hieber)

A country facing volcanoes, hurricanes and the most unequal income distribution

With a population of approximately 7 million people [1]  on 21,000 km2, El Salvador is the smallest but most densely populated country of Latin America (rank 33 of 238 total worldwide) [2].  Situated in Central America between Guatemala and Honduras, its landscape is dominated by its 23 volcanoes crossing the country from west to east and the mountain range in its north.

El Salvador has a tropical climate with pronounced wet and dry seasons. Almost all the annual rainfall occurs during its wet season between May and October and usually falls in heavy afternoon thunderstorms with the common occurrence of severe hurricanes (e.g., Hurricane Mitch in 1998). In addition, its geographic location along the Pacific ring of fire provokes frequent natural phenomenon like earthquakes and volcanic activity causing disasters and catastrophes (e.g., two earthquakes within two months in 2001 and its most recent destructive eruption of the Santa Ana Volcano in 2005).

Besides the constant threat of natural disasters, El Salvador faces many social problems and is among the 10 poorest countries in Latin America. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is approximately half of the average Latin-American and half of the average world GDP and less than an eighth of the GDP of the United States of America. According to the United Nation Development Report, almost 50 % of the El Salvadoran people are living below the national poverty line.

However, El Salvador currently shows a steadily growing economy and has the third largest economy in the region. This development is reflected in the high Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.747 in El Salvador, equal to the world average. In comparison to its neighboring Central American countries, El Salvador shows the highest rank of human development, the highest GDP per capita and the lowest Human Poverty Index. However, regarding the ratio of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%, El Salvador shows the highest inequality of its income distribution in all of Central America and the ninth highest worldwide. This indicator puts the relatively high development into another perspective and shows that only a small part of the population is benefiting from the growing economy and the majority is still living in very poor conditions [3]. (Table 1)

Table 1: Comparison of human development indicators of different high and medium developed countries and country groups (*: data based on 2004)

Population density
GDP per capita (2006)
People living below the national poverty line
HDI (2006)
Human poverty index
Inequality measure: ratio of richest 10% to poorest 10%
Population using an improved water source (2006)
Population using improved sanitation (2004)
   pop/km2  (PPP US$)
 (%)   (%)
   (%)  (%)
High Human Development
 176  37'396  -  0.955  -  9.0  100  100
 31  43'968  -  0.950  -  15.9  100  100
Germany  232  31'766  -  0.940  -  6.9  100  100
Medium Human Development
El Salvador
 327  5'477  48.3  0.747  13.6  57.5  84  62
 64  3'553  53.0  0.714  14.9  34.2  84  69
 42  2'441  47.9  0.699  16  15.5  79  47
 116  4'311  56.2  0.696  20.3  48.2  96  86
Country groups
High-income OECD
   35'331    0.950      *100  100
Latin America + Caribbean
   9'051    0.810      *91  77
 45  9'316    0.747      *83  59
Source  [2]  [3]  [18]  [3]  [3]  [18]  [3]  [18]

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

Reducing extreme poverty is one of the eight so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed upon. This Campaign to End Poverty by 2015 includes the following eight MDGs: eradicate extreme poverty & hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria & other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. [4]

According to the actual data of the United Nations Development Programme, El Salvador has already achieved 3 of the 15 targets listed, 7 remaining probable and 3 less probable (2 without a specific goal). El Salvador succeeded in reducing extreme poverty by half (national line) – with over 10 % of the population still living in extreme poverty, ensuring that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling, and reducing by half the portion of people without access to sanitation. Still, less probable are the reduction of child malnutrition by half, the mortality rate among children under five by two thirds, and maternal mortality ratio by three quarters. [5]

MDG 7 „Environmental Sustainability“ includes the sub goal to “halve”, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation“. Water represents a fundamental resource that is strongly connected to other MDGs, for example, providing the basis for securing global nourishment (MDG 1), ensure universal primary education (MDG 2) as well as empower women (MDG 3), reduce child mortality (MDG 4) and improve maternal health (MDG 5). Although the goals of MDG 7 officially are achieved or are probable to be achieved by 2015, the actual situation of drinking water supply and basic sanitation remains alarming in El Salvador.

Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation – primarily in cities

For El Salvador, MDG 7 means reducing the proportion of the population without sustainable access to drinking water to 11.9 % (from 23.9 % in 1991) and those without sustainable access to basic sanitation to 11 % (from 21.9 % in 1991). In 2008, 12.1 % of the population still didn’t have access to improved drinking water and 8.1 % to improved sanitation. However, improved access to safe drinking water not only means connection to piping and a public tap, but also includes access to public and/or private wells, protected springs and rainwater reservoirs as “safe drinking water”. Similarly, improved access to basic sanitation means toilets connected to sewage systems or septic tanks as well as the use of latrines.

The actual situation shows a great disequilibrium between rural (37 %) and urban (63 %)   parts of the country [6]. In 2005, only a third of the rural households were connected to a private water pipe (in comparison to three quarters of urban areas), and still a fifth of the rural population had to carry their water from water holes or rivers (0.5 % in urban areas). Access to sanitation showed a similar situation: only 11 % of the rural population had access to toilets, the majority(66 %) using private latrines, and a fifth still didn’t have any access to sanitation (whereas in urban areas 60 % were using toilets, 22 % private latrines and only 4 % didn’t have any access). [7]  In 2007, the national administration of aqueducts and sewers (ANDA) still only served half of the total municipalities with drinking water and less than a fourth with sewer systems, and only 4 % of the rural population had a private connection to the national water system of ANDA. [8]

Although access to drinking water is improving, quality still remains bad. The Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) report for El Salvador states that although MDG 7 already is achieved in quantitative terms, the sanitation situation still shows qualitative deficiencies and is alarming given that the major part of the wastewater is discharged directly into the rivers and coastal areas without any treatment. El Salvador still shows a general lack of regulations and enforcement tools. Of the 81 municipalities with sewer system served by ANDA only 8 have a wastewater treatment plant. [9]

One of the pilot families with their Kanchan filter to reduce the toxic arsenic from their drinking water.
Fig. 2: One of the pilot families with their Kanchan filter to reduce the toxic arsenic from their drinking water. (Photo: M. Hieber)

Water contamination – from A as arsenic to Z as zinc

The situation of insufficient wastewater treatment directly affects the quality of its surface, subsurface and drinking water. The major source of water contamination comes from untreated domestic and industrial waste disposal. While little official information exists on the quality of drinking water, investigations on the water quality of the rivers and lakes of El Salvador not only showed very high microbial contamination but also strongly increased concentrations of many other toxic elements such as metals (e.g., chromium, manganese, iron, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead), organic contaminations (e.g., pesticides and phenols) and toxic gases (e.g., methane, phosphine and ammoniac) that easily enter in drinking water and other organisms. [10] Analyses of freshwater fishes, for example, revealed concentrations of lead and chromium up to 15 and 7 times, respectively, above the maximum permissible value. [11]

The almost universal contamination with fecal (pathogenic) bacteria originates from infiltration of human or animal feces into the water. The cause is not only a lack of wastewater treatment but also a lack of groundwater protection. Latrines, pastures as well as private graves next to wells are common sights. Chemical contamination from pesticide use as well as industrial organic waste contamination from the agricultural industry is also widespread. For example, DDT (Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) and Gramoxone (Paraquat) are common pesticides in El Salvador – although they are prohibited in many western countries. [12] The protected wetland around the reservoir Cerron Grande, which shelters many endangered and endemic species, receives a monthly load of 4 million kg of feces from the Acelhuate River, draining the waste water of more than 1.5 million households from the metropolitan area of San Salvador. The three major rivers feeding the reservoir carry the contamination discharge from a total of 154 sources: 54 industries, 55 coffee-processing and 7 sugar-processing plants, 29 sewer systems and 9 municipal slaughterhouses. [13]

Besides the manifold anthropogenic contaminations, water in El Salvador also gets affected by natural sources such as volcanic and geothermal activities. Drinking water close to the volcanic crater lakes of Lago de Ilopango and Lago de Coatepeque show concentrations of the toxic element arsenic up to tenfold above the maximum permissible value (of 0.01 mg/l) and many deep aquifers have elevated concentration of iron and manganese. [14]

Improving water quality with UV radiation and rusty iron nails

Although the government neither has the money nor shows the intention of treating waste / drinking water in rural areas, simple household technologies to improve the quality of water and health have been implemented by different local and international NGOs. Pro-Vida is one of the local NGOs analyzing water samples from different sources outside the national drinking water supply and helping the people concerned with improving their drinking water with cheap and simple technologies (Figure 1).

The most common type of disinfection is with chlorine, an effective but expensive and taste changing method. Alternatively, people are getting instructed to apply solar disinfection using the no-cost method SODIS established by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology eawag. [15]  Contamination with heavy metals and arsenic, however, need more sophisticated methods of removal. Pro-Vida started the first pilot study in Central America removing arsenic with an adapted version of the Kanchan filter, which was developed in Bangladesh by MIT using iron nails and a subsequent sand filter to bind and remove the toxic arsenic.[16] Initial results demonstrate good arsenic as well as bacteria removal and a high acceptance by the population affected (Figure 2).

Providing sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation is a long process that not only requires new methods and technologies but also sensitizing and awareness building of the people - process that the Salvadoran NGO Pro-Vida has been working for many years together with other NGOs and the support of different international organizations.

I especially would like to thank INTERTEAM, a Swiss organization of Personnel Development Co-operation, for giving me the opportunity to experience and live in this country and work with the Salvadoran NGO Pro-Vida   as well as to my colleagues of Pro-Vida [17] for welcoming and supporting me. All projects are possible thanks to the support and assistance of our international partner organizations such as the Swiss Labour Assistance, Technical Cooperation Frank A. Escher, Oxfam America, Swiss Solidarity, Georg Fischer Foundation “Clean Water”, Solidaridad Internacional, ANESVAD, Elkartasuna and Intersol.


Gross domestic product (GDP): The total output of goods and services for final use produced by an economy by both residents and non-residents, regardless of the allocation to domestic and foreign claims. It does not include deductions for depreciation of physical capital or depletion and degradation of natural resources.

Human development index (HDI): A composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HPI - Human Poverty Index (the level of human poverty): Rather than measure poverty by income, the HPI uses indicators of the most basic dimensions of deprivation: a short life, lack of basic education and lack of access to public and private resources. The HPI concentrates on the deprivation in the three essential elements of human life already reflected in the HDI: longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living.

Inequality measures: Ratio of richest 10% to poorest 10%: Data show the ratio of income or consumption share of the richest group to that of the poorest group. A value of 0 represents absolute equality, and a value of 100 absolute inequality.

National poverty line: The poverty line deemed appropriate for a country by its authorities.

Purchasing power parity (PPP): A rate of exchange that accounts for price differences across countries, allowing international comparisons of real output and incomes. At the PPP US$ rate (as used in this report), PPP US$1 has the same purchasing power in the domestic economy as US$1 has in the United States.

Water source, improved, population using: The percentage of the population with reasonable access to any of the following types of water supply for drinking: household connections, public standpipes, boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs and rainwater collection. Reasonable access is defined as the availability of at least 20 liters per person per day from a source within one kilometer of the user’s dwelling.


[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_density
[3] UNDP Human Development Report 2007+2008
[4] http://www.endpoverty2015.org
[5] http://www.pnud.org.sv/2007/odm/content/view/15/101/
[6] Ministerio de economía. 2008. VI Censo de Población y V de Vivienda 2007.
[7] Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD). 2007. Trayectorias hacia el cumplimientro de los ODM en El Salvador. Cuadernos sobre desarrollo humano.
[8] ANDA. 2007. Boletín Estadístico. No. 29.
[9] WSP. 2008. Saneamiento para el desarrollo. ¿Cómo estamos en 22 países de América Latina y el Caribe?
[10] Servicio Nacional de Estudios Territoriales (SNET). 2007. Diagnóstico Nacional de Calidad de Aguas Superficiales.
[11] elsalvador.com. Hallan plomo en peces en Suchitlán. 9 de Marzo de 2008
[12] US Army Corps of Engineers. 1998. Water resources assessment of El Salvador.
[13] MARN/AECI. 2004. Embalse Cerrón Grande. Propuesta de Sitio Ramsar.
[14] Water samples analized by Pro-Vida with the support of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology eawag. 2005-2009.
[15] http://www.sodis.ch
[16] http://web.mit.edu/watsan/tech_hwts_chemical_kanchanarsenicfilter.html
[17] http://www.interteam.ch/einsaetze/fachleute.htm
[18] UNDP Human Development Indices 2008

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mhieber_a.jpg Maeggi Hieber
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Last Updated ( Friday, 24 April 2009 )
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