Water weirdness and inconveniences are the most pronounced in remote areas of El Salvador, but people in the city, and oftentimes poor urban areas, suffer from interruptions in service that can last for days. The further you go out into the country, the greater chance you have of no running water (and no sewage system). Many communities have a system where the water only runs for a set time each day or sometimes every other day. No one I know in El Salvador has running water coming to their home 24×7. That’s why many houses with modern construction and indoor plumbing fixtures will have either a big black tank to hold a lot of water, sitting somewhere up high to create water pressure (and have running water always), or a cisterna (a cement reserve water tank) to store extra water for when the water is not running from the town or city pipes. Real Estate ads will note if a rental has a ‘cisterna,’ which is important.
Where we lived in Los Planes de Renderos, it was an odd box. There is a big water tank managed by ANDA, located on the main street across the street from “El Mirador”, which residents of the nearby area get their water from. Water ran on a schedule that appeared to accommodate nine-to-fivers (it’s actually 8 to 5 here – a 44 hour workweek). It would start running sometime in the afternoon, say 4:30 or 5:00pm, would run all night, then go off again sometime after 8am. But it varied. Sometimes we’d have water at 11am or 2pm. You never knew. So when I wasn’t working, I had a bucket system I set up in the kitchen and bath so I always had water on hand, since the Pila is outside of the house and a sump pump has to be turned on to get water out of the Cisterna, which is how we took showers if the water wasn’t running. This on and off water schedule was somewhat hazardous in that if a knob or valve was accidentally left open when the tap was dry, later, sometimes even the middle of the night, oops! The water runneth over in the pila, or somewhere else. This did not phase us in the early days of Los Planes because were were in the “fixed rate” water system (more on that later). The other odd thing about the water where we lived was the water pressure when it ran. When it ran during the day, the water pressure seemed normal, but at nighttime, it could come in with the power of a sandblaster. Our neighbor, Doris, would often walk up from her house a block down from us to in front of our house, where her water meter happens to be installed (long story, she did not have running water until a few years ago), and turn off the water because it was spritzing out of her pila valve.
Soapy run-off. In many neighborhoods throughout El Salvador, something to get used to is seeing run-off from sinks poured right onto the street from a PVC pipe. Don’t worry, it’s not raw sewage from anyone’s toilet. It’s water from a sink and may contain either dish or laundry detergent. I know, it’s “not nice” to mother nature, but the number of pollutants and volume of them that the OECD countries have tossed onto their own and neighboring countries soils and air dwarfs all the soap runoff here, so I’m not going to fret about it. It was shocking to me to see people washing clothes into the river or bathing when I first got here, but now it’s normal to me.
Minimum Rate / Cifra Minima – for water / agua. Officially, I don’t know of anyone who is supposed to be on a “fixed” minimum rate plan for water in El Salvador (charged the minimum rate regardless of the cubic meters used), but apparently many people are recipients of this. Either it’s the water meter, or someone has “fixed ‘em” in the billing system, or a little bit of both. I visited a friend in Jayaque a few months ago, and his relatives there told me they’ve never paid more than the minimum. His aunt walked me around her house, proudly showing me her garden, flowers, and hanging baskets, which she devotes two hour a day to watering! They are not rich, but somewhere in the middle to upper middle class zone, and in no need of a minimum rate plan. Even we were recipients of this happy plan for almost a year and a half. I noticed our bill was $2.29 one month. Next month it came in at the same amount, etc. I wasn’t going to question this, since after all, we gave water to our poor neighbors next to us who had no running water going to their house, and it seemed a fair deal that ANDA, notorious for corruption, should help subsidize poor families in El Salvador. Like a Robin Hood / Poetic Justice sort of thing. Well, all that wonderfulness came to an end one day last October when they came to install a new water meter. They charged us for the meter and the labor to install it in a separate bill – close to $35 – this would compare to being charged $100-$150 for the water company in the States, I think. Then the bill went up. I was busy working a lot, so was not watering the garden much, but late February, after I quit, I decided to give the poor lawn and plants much needed water, and was rather liberal.
Around that same time, we had a major user-error take place. Remember what I told you about open valves? Well, hubby took a shower one day around 10pm. The water was not running, so he had to open the valve to the cisterna and run the sump pump to bathe. Then he went to bed. Next morning, around 6:30am I walk onto the patio and see water. Which was odd, since it’s not rainy season. I follow the water up to the cisterna and see…. it’s overflowing from the top. The same valve that lets water out of the cisterna also lets water in, of course. The water came back on sometime during the night, so it’s possible we had water running like a garden hose on full blast, up to seven hours, into the cisterna. Our bill the next month was $38, and it’s normally $9-$15. I know that doesn’t sound like much to you, but women come out on the news here complaining about a $40 water bill. It’s like getting a water bill in the U.S. for $250 for an apartment only (though I hear in places like Georgia this is not too uncommon). Meanwhile, ANDA has also started to charge us for “alcantarillados” (sewage pipe use), even though everyone at the company knows Los Planes does not have sewage pipes, everyone has a septic tank. I went to the water company to straighten this extra charge out, which ranges depending on your water use, about $2 a month for us, and they sent an employee out. Instead of verifying that we have a septic tank and no sewage, he identified ‘leaks’ in valves and toilets and noted them to my husband. I kept going back in the following months, and found it unnerving, because the clerks there would say “Oh yeah, there’s no ‘aguas negras’ (sewage) in Los Planes, I’ll take it off your bill.” And the charge would come up again the next month. Finally, in May the clerks explained they cannot take it off the bill until someone has physically “verified” there are no sewage pipes (like the rep they sent who didn’t do that). Doesn’t ANDA have an infrastructure map to identify who has sewage and who doesn’t, since after all THEY are the people who would install and maintain those pipes, right? But perhaps it’s just easier to slap the charge on everyone’s bill, and force people to call up or got to their office every month and have the charge taken off, which people who have less time and more money will not waste their time with. So between the phantom sewage lines and accidental cisterna overflow, I decided to Boycott ANDA. I shut the water off at the main valve, and said we’d use the bucket system or pila until that darn thing was empty. This was much to my husband’s consternation, but I pay for the water bill, and though it’s not as much money for us as a Salvadoran, it was the point of the matter.
“We paid for that water and we’re gonna use ALL of it,” I said.
We’ve moved back to the country, and the water is much more predictable, even though it does come to the house every day. It runs every other day from 6am – 12pm, a fairly long time window. If I worked milking cows from 4am – noon it would be difficult, but let’s remember the Salvadoran rule for receiving any services: the assumption that there is always someone at home to be able to tend to things. On that morning we have a chance to fill the Pila, our garrafon de agua (big water bottle), buckets, everything. The water system used to be a fixed rate of $5 a house, but there was much bickering going on, and people would often turn their water valves back “on” when they weren’t supposed to, taking more water out after the water guy who turned all the valves on and off closed their valve. Families felt it unjust to pay the same amount when other families used more. So, the problem got solved when they, too, decided to install water meters at everyone’s home. I don’t think they were charged the same as ANDA charged us for the meter install, but I’ll double check. There’s one problem with the new system, however. The new water guy, who now just opens and closes the main valve, is assigned the task of reading the water meters, and he’s illiterate. So, once a month he and a woman named “Lola,” whose isn’t that educated, but can at least read, walks around with him and checks the meters. They sometimes make mistakes, or the billing people sometimes do, but since everyone knows each other, they seem to be able to work out errors and disputes.