Water poverty in Esmeraldas

Tiwinza is a former illegal settlement in the suburbs of the city Esmeraldas in the province of Esmeraldas located on the coast in the North West part of Ecuador. It is one of the hottest areas of Ecuador with average temperatures around 28°C during the day and around 24°C during the night though the whole year. The rain season lasts from January till April/May with 80-90 mm average rainfall per month and the dry season from June till November/December with 10-15 mm in the dry season.

When we arrived, the weather was very hot and humid, the buses were swirling the dust in the streets and it stayed like that the whole 3 days. The locals say that when it rains, it’s even worse because the streets are full of mud. The settlement appeared many years ago near the biggest national oil refinery company Petroecuador which was opened around 45 years ago in the outskirts of the city of Esmeraldas. The jobs that the oil company has offered have made people to start settling in this area.

Nowadays the neighborhood is more or less organised, there is connection to electricity in all the houses, and there is also water supply, although insufficient irregular. The water supply doesn’t cover even the basic needs of the people living here. One neighbor tells us: “we suffer very strongly from the deficit of water… There are months when the water comes, there are months when it doesn’t come.” Another one says: “generally we get water once per week, in average. To us the water comes only at night, early in the morning. During the day there is water in some parts but here not.”

In order to understand the water problem of the neighborhood it’s important to understand the water issue of the whole city. Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to speak to the responsible water company (EAPA) in Esmeraldas because the manager of EAPA refused the interview so we don’t have any official statement towards the situation. We believe that it’s a message clear enough to understand that the problems are very serious.

We spoke just quickly to a technician from the treatment plant that is located in San Mateo and he told us that the water treatment plant has the capacity to treat drinkable water for cca 45 thousand people. Nowadays in the city Esmeraldas lives about 150 thousand people. This means that obviously it’s not possible to deliver drinkable water to all the people in the city and the water supply is being interrupted very often. As he has explained us, usually what happens is that people from the city might have the water supply interrupted every second day. The technician also told us that there is a plan to construct a new plant next year so the needs of the whole city can be covered. What we cannot understand though is why the new treatment plant was not given higher priority and why it was not constructed already years ago. The water supply in Esmeraldas is not a problem of the last 5, 10 or 15 years; it’s a really long term problem. How it’s possible that in a country with so much water, there are people living without drinkable water available?

We cannot comment on the situation in the city center but in the neighborhood Tiwinza the problems with water supply are very serious, people never know when will water come and for how long will it flow.

The architecture of Tiwinza is very diverse, there are houses constructed by cement and bricks, wood or bamboo. Most of them are very small houses of 1 or 2 rooms, some of them are bigger. Most of the houses have regular water supply installation and flush toilets with sewage system. But almost never there is the water available in the taps, neither in the toilet, just from the hose in front of the house. So what the people have to do is to collect the water for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning and for the use of the toilet in buckets and plastic canisters in front of the house. And the quality of the water is also not very good. Maria Zegnifo, living in the poorest area called Fifty houses for already 10 years says: “there is no water….If there is water, maybe once per month. And the water comes with dirt, with soil. When the water comes after long time, it comes with a big power and it comes with soil in it so we have to boil the water because if not the children get sick, and the adults as well.”

The difficult situation puts people together and they help each other, sometimes there might be a house or two that has water so the neighbors borrow the water to each other for the most necessary purposes. “I have the water hose and the water almost never comes to my house, it comes only when the flow is really strong, otherwise I have to go to the neighbour. For me to have water…..the flow has to be very strong and then when all the people are sleeping, I can fill in the canisters. I have a lot of problems with water, generally all the people in this area, the water doesn’t come very often,” said a neighbour that lives for 5 years next door from the family that accommodated us.

Generally as the water is being kept in open buckets, there is also a danger of spreading diseases from insects, dust, animals etc. in case that the water is standing there for longer time. Also because of the lack of water, the hygiene (especially considering the use of toilets) is not very high and this may also cause diseases.

Another problem is sanitation. Just try to imagine using flush toilets inside the house without water. And then all the waste water goes to the nearby river, the same river that the inhabitants use water from in the times of crisis when there is no water at all. “When there is no water, we have to go to the river – mainly for washing and for the water for the toilet, less for cooking. For cooking it’s not possible, we have to buy water.”  Daya who lives in the neighborhood for 12 years says: “I don’t have a water hose, I go for water to my mother or to Maria (another neighbor) when she doesn’t have. And when there is no water, people go to the river, mainly for washing, but I cannot, because water is causing me skin problems. I have to wait for the water to come to wash myself.” Another neighbor says that since there is no other water, people have to use the water from the river even though it’s very contaminated. She says that the diseases are spreading a lot, people have fungus inside the organism, on the skin, the vaginal infections and many other problems.

“Before the people was fishing in this river. Nowadays you cannot eat the fishes from there. But there are still children who eat the fish from the river now, without considering the consequences, poor children… With the economical situation nowadays, there are people who don’t have money for food so the children go to the river and eat the fish,” says one neighbor.

And domestic waste is not the only pollutant, also the oil company throws its waste water there and nobody really knows how well is this water treated. And at the same time there is a lot of state propaganda supporting the oil industry. Everywhere around the city banners can be found saying: The oil company improves the education. The oil company improves your health care. The oil company improves your neighborhood…. In Tiwinza there are 3 schools that were reconstructed by the oil company and each one of them has a picture how the school looked like before, how does it look like now and the respective banner. There is also new health center financed by the oil company. As some say, it’s an exchange. But do we really want these kind of exchanges?

Many of the locals complain about the pollution that the company is causing to the environment and mainly about the pollution of water but on the other hand some of them acknowledge that they have moved to the place because of the jobs that the oil company offers and so by many people the oil company is not seen as something negative but as a company which gives jobs, contributes to the national economy and realizes social projects. “The pollution is not only the fault of the oil company; it’s also our fault that we have moved so close to the company for the jobs, knowing the consequences…,” say one woman.

Of course the problem is not one sided, the people have moved close to the oil company knowing the consequences but why in the first place should the oil company contaminate the environment anyway? Why the waste water is not treated well so it doesn’t pollute the rivers? Earlier or later it will always have consequences on the environment as whole and on people…

In the 2008 Constitution (the so-called "constitucion del buen vivir"), written and approved by the Correa government, the article 71 affirms: "All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.", but what happens if it's a national state company polluting the environment? Which power could have a citizen calling upon public authorities in this case? And overall in a nation where the economy and the related social policies are based on oil and depend on the price of oil?


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