A Global Village
Issue 3 » In The Field

Building Toilets And Trust In El Salvador

Francesca O’Hanlon & Alison Ahearn, Imperial College London

El Salvador, a small but densely populated Central American country, was home to one the most infamous civil wars in history. During the period 1980-1992 some 75,000 Salvadorians died with the war setting the development of El Salvador back 20 years. Currently, 37.2% of the population lives below the poverty line and only 59% have access to safe drinking water.

In the aftermath of the civil war, and a succession of violent earthquakes that hit El Salvador in 2001, students at the Deptartment of Civil Engineering at Imperial College decided to team up with local NGOs to help carry out reconstruction work. In July 2010, thirteen students undertook a six-week construction project focusing on water provision and sanitation in rural San Simon, yet were challenged by unexpected hostility and mistrust from the local population. History helps explain why.

In 1970, the export of coffee contributed to 95% of El Salvador’s national income. However, only 2% of the population profited from this lucrative trade. The unequal distribution of wealth led to national unrest. Violent protests became an all-too-frequent occurrence. In 1979, in response to the lack of action taken by the government to reduce the vast wealth divide, five main guerrilla groups united to form the left–wing political party FMLN.

In the midst of the Cold War, the United States, guided by its desire to combat leftist governments, came out in support of the government. Ronald Reagan, the then-president of the United States, televised the following statement in 1984: ‘San Salvador is closer to Texas, than Texas is to Washington D.C. Central America is at our doorstep and it has become a stage for bold attempts from the Soviet Union and Cuba to install communism by force throughout our hemisphere’. The Reagan administration viewed the Salvadoran military government as a potential barrier against the spread of communism. As the result, at the height of the civil war, US funding to the military government, including the infamous death squads, reached $1.5 million a day.

The level of devastation after the civil war was unfathomable. By the end of the war over 75,000 Salvadorians had perished and the country was left to rebuild itself from $2 billion worth of damage. However, what most shocked international audiences about this particular war was the terrifying level of human rights violations. Despite the organisation of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, many of the most shocking abuses in human rights remained unpunished. An incident that has been described as one of the most barbaric massacres in recent history happened in a small town in El Salvador called El Mozote. In 1981, units of the Salvadoran army, trained on US soil, raped, tortured and slaughtered more than nine hundred Salvadoran civilians, most of them children and women. Despite news reports from the New York Times revealing the massacre as early as January 1982, the Salvadoran army and government reported that no such massacre had taken place and the Reagan administration dismissed the reports as ‘gross exaggerations’.

It is perhaps unsurprising that social fabric of El Salvador was shattered after the war. To add oil to the fire, El Salvador is located on the western part of the Caribbean Plate where it overrides the Cocos Plate. This unfortunate geographic location means that earthquakes are a serious threat to the country as was seen in 2001 when over 100,000 homes were destroyed. Hence, post-conflict resolution and nation building have been particularly slow and difficult, hindered by the frequent earthquakes that shatter both physical and social infrastructures, and by an air of mistrust and hostility.

In July 2010, thirteen students from the Imperial College Civil Engineering department travelled to El Salvador in order to undertake a six-week construction project. The purpose of this project was to improve the quality of life in San Simon, a small rural community in the northeast corner of El Salvador through building better sanitation. The team travelled to El Salvador with a budget to construct ten composting toilets, or aboneras, and ten outdoor water storage units, or pilas.

In order to carry out this plan, the students liaised with a local NGO, REDES (Fundación Salvadoreña para la Reconstrucción y el Desarrollo). REDES was set up in 1988 to work with the urban and rural sectors for post-conflict reconstruction. REDES identified the need for improved sanitation. On their suggestion, the students interviewed over sixty families, living in extreme poverty, to discover which would benefit most from the construction of sanitation units.

Delicate Discussions
The initial interview process was, unexpectedly, the most difficult aspect of the project. Everyone interviewed was in desperate need of improved sanitation; it felt unjust having to decide which families should receive the units. The process of discussing existing sanitation with locals had to be dealt with delicately. It became evident that psychologically, it was the women who were most affected by the lack of adequate sanitation. Many women were uncomfortable with admitting that they did not have an abonera and were often unwilling to discuss their current sanitation conditions. In contrast, men rarely seemed embarrassed about discussing sanitation.

It was decided that families with many women or young girls were more in need of aboneras. The hardest aspect of the interview process was that it provided false hope for the families who eventually did not receive an abonera or pila. This led to a certain level of hostility towards the project.

In the poorest communities, there is an air of mistrust towards anyone who claims to offer aid. San Simon has been continually promised an improvement in living conditions by the government for the last twenty years. Despite these assurances, very few people have received any support, and so believe that they can only rely on themselves. In addition, there is often severe degree of hostility between neighbours.

This hostility is down to two key factors. Firstly, as so many people have so little materially, self-preservation becomes a survival technique. People can barely afford basic goods for themselves let alone to share with others. Secondly, during the civil war, neighbours with conflicting views were forced to fight against each other, damaging all communal trust and respect. NGOs like REDES actively change living conditions and attitudes in El Salvador. Their mark on communities is evident, having constructed hundreds of houses within the poorest communities.

Ferrying Blocks
Once the families who would receive sanitation units were selected, the students spent the following five weeks constructing the units. Students were provided with only basic tools such as shovels and no machinery was used. Many of the sites were located in remote areas. All materials had to be carried by hand as there was no vehicle access. One specific site consisted of two households comprising two single mothers, each with five young children. Their houses were located on a hillside, a mile from the nearest road. It was decided that they would both receive an aboneras and pila. In order to construct two aboneras and pilas, 1500 breezeblocks are required. It took the students eight days to carry these breezeblocks to this particular site.

Despite the initial mistrust towards the project, when members of the community saw what the students were trying to achieve and saw them struggling with the construction materials, support was gradually offered. On one occasion, a group of local school children helped carry five hundred breezeblocks, and embarrassingly, were much swifter and stronger than the students!

The El Salvador project provides students with an opportunity to discover how the application of engineering can help rebuild a country, not only physically but also socially. The project will continue to run every summer. Hopefully with its growth and expansion, future teams will raise enough funds to carry out a project that allows communities to work together, such as the construction of a school. Although El Salvador has managed to start rebuilding itself slowly, nearly two decades on the emotional and financial destruction caused by the war remains devastatingly evident.

 Francesca O’Hanlon is a fourth year Civil and Environmental Engineering student at Imperial College London. She was joint team leader of the 2010 El Salvador Project. Alison Ahearn is Faculty of Engineering Tutor for Student-led Projects.

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