One of our nine days in El Salvador was set aside for field trips. I chose to visit Isla Espiritu Santo, a large island in a tidal estuary two hours southeast of San Salvador. Our mission: learn about the CIS sponsored water filtration program for the 375 families that call the island home.
The further from the city we went, the flatter the terrain became: We were entering the coastal plain where the dominant crop is sugar cane. San Miguel volcano loomed in the not very far distance, the ash falls of recent months on hiatus for now.
The thing about an island is that it’s surrounded by water, which necessitates a boat ride. You know what a stretch limousine is, right? In Puerto el Triunfo we boarded a stretch row boat, the Karen Elizabeth I, with rows of planks for seating, a canopy overhead, and an outboard motor for propulsion.
Bikes, not cars or trucks, were the most common wheeled conveyance. Carts attached to the front carried all manner of things–including pigs.
As has been the case in almost all the community development projects I’ve visited in my two visits to El Salvador, women were in charge.
We sat on plastic chairs in Marta’s bare dirt yard as she and Luis talked H2O. With a water table only four feet below ground level, no sewage system, and flooding during rainy season, residents had been drinking murky, contaminated water that resulted in chronic diarrhea, parasitic illnesses, and bacterial infections.
It took a couple of tries before CIS found what the community needed: a simple water filter that was long-lasting, easy to clean, and could quickly produce 3 to 4 gallons of clean water. Most of the island’s families now use them.
Another NGO, Water for the World, provided two, large-capacity UV sanitizing systems–one for the neighborhood school, another for the state run medical clinic. Anyone can access the water at these sites. This is one of the spigots at the school.
The clinic’s MD told us that having clean water has significantly reduced the incidence of diarrhea among community residents.
Several of the women involved with the water filtration program have started another venture. The primary employer on the island is a coconut cooperative that’s been in business since 1979. Though the crop is primarily used to produce oil, with microfinancing help from CIS, a small collective has begun using some of the coconut to make dulces–sweets–which they hope to market on the mainland. Getting their kitchen certified and transporting their product are just two of the challenges they face.
Our visit left me with the realization that clean water is critical for reducing poverty in developing countries. Bad water means children become ill and can’t concentrate or miss school altogether; they suffer from nutritional deficiencies because of malabsorption; they may be prone to other debilitating illnesses. The technology exists; we just have to make it possible for people to use it.