The movement of climate refugees is no longer hypothetical. It is now happening. The scenes at America's southern border have their beginning much further away.
El Salvador, the tiny Central American state and the most densely populated country in the region, is one of the most murderous in the world, plagued by warring gang factions and security forces who shoot to kill. Relentless bloodshed and chronic unemployment have driven wave after wave of migration to the North as Salvadorans seek a better life.
But in recent years, widespread water shortages are increasingly helping fuel unrest and forced displacement. It also has the region’s lowest water reserves, which are depleting fast thanks to the climate crisis, pollution and unchecked commercial exploitation. According to one study, El Salvador will run out of water within 80 years unless radical action is taken to improve the way the country manages its dwindling water supplies.
Years of drought has prompted water rationing in urban and rural areas across the country. Yet much is wasted: most rainwater is lost due to widespread deforestation and eroded river basins; once in the system, 48% of water is lost through leaks. 90% of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated by untreated sewage, agricultural and industrial waste, according to studies by Marn.Nejapa is a semi-urban municipality on the northern outskirts of El Salvador’s capital. Sources are already running dry: the Nejapa aquifer provides 40% of the water used by the overcrowded capital, but the water level has shrunk by 20% in the past five years alone.
“Marginalized communities struggle day to day to get access to enough water. It’s not a question that this could one day cause social conflict – it already is … the whole country is close to crisis,” said Silvia de Larios, former director of ecosystems and wildlife at the ministry of environment and natural resources (known by its Spanish acronym, Marn). “There are no clear rules, no sanctions, no monitoring, and big business uses these legal vacuums to exploit water as a product for profit. It’s the poorest who suffer most,” said De Larios.
The water problem is only exacerbated by corporate interests and corruption. A lush forest, known as the lungs of Nejapa, is being chopped down to make way for gated housing developments with private underground wells. Nejapa’s biggest industrial water guzzlers and alleged polluters – the local Coca-Cola bottling company and sugar cane plantations – have been unaffected by rationing. Behind the Coca-Cola factory, murky, foul-smelling water can be seen pumping into a stream.
A network of grassroots groups, environmentalists supported by the Catholic church convinced lawmakers to make history in 2017 by banning metal mining – a major cause of pollution. But politicians have so far refused to create an independent regulatory system, which campaigners argue would put human consumption and sustainability above corporate interests.
Andres McKinley, a water and mining scholar from the Central American University (UCA), said: “This is a huge political issue; we must change who controls water. That’s the war we’re in.”
“The cycle of violence begins when the state abandons communities by not providing fundamental human rights like water, education, health and jobs – which end up being the fertile ground in which gangs and violence grows,” said Jeanne Rikkers, a violence prevention expert with the NGO Cristosal “But the fix is only ever about the violence, never the root causes. As water become increasingly critical, gangs will likely become involved in community conflicts as the state is absent.”