Testing the Water

Don't drink the water.  Don't brush your teeth with the water.  Don't open your mouth in the shower.

Perhaps you have been in El Salvador and received these cautions.  Perhaps you have learned that Salvadorans suffer the effects from living in a region in which nearly 100% of the surface water is contaminated with human and animal feces and agro and industrial chemicals.  Perhaps you have experienced a day or more in El Salvador during which the municipal system did not function, and you had no access to water.  Added to the environmental and systemic issues, the interests of private companies which sell water in plastic bottles or use water to make bottled beverages (Coca-Cola) have made it nearly impossible for El Salvador to make progress in cleaning up its water mess.

The fight to pass a holistic water protection bill continues, as do the negative effects contaminated water have on the health of the Salvadoran people.  In the midst of the struggle, there are some signs that community leaders, public health clinics and ANDA (the public water system that many Salvadorans call a private company) are beginning to work together to improve the quality of the water that flows into homes and communities.

We recently had the opportunity to observe the collection and initial testing of water samples from a small community in the northern part of the Department of San Salvador.  The testing team consisted of a community health promoter, and a member of the community water council.  A few (or perhaps several) years ago, the community homes received water from springs and rain water from the nearby mountains.  The mountain water was collected in cisterns so it could be used throughout the year.  The residents say it was tasty and pure, but it is hard to evaluate that anecdotal analysis.  The cisterns were closed and ANDA (the National Association of Aqueducts and Sewers) installed a municipal system.  With that came the metering of water, and water bills, and chlorinating of the water.  The new testing program monitors chlorine levels, chemicals and bacteria in the water.

The heath promoter turned on the tap and let it run for a minute or so.  Then
he filled a small test tube up to the marking line.
Five drops of orthotolidine change the color of the water sample to yellow.

This is the color comparison chart which is used to
visually determine the level of chlorine in the water sample.

The level at this site was 1.0 mg/L (within the normal range of 0.5 and 1.5 mg/L)

The next step was to collect two clean samples of water to test for other
types of contaminants (at a chemical laboratory).  The small jar with the
green lid contains isopropyl alcohol.  The two sample jars are sterile and sealed.

The health promoter carefully cleaned the tap outside and and inside.  

The water council representative ignited a cotton ball which had been soaked in alcohol.

The health promotor passed the fire over and under and inside the brass faucet. 
This is one reason they selected this home as a consistent test site, because
it has a metal faucet.

After running the water for a bit, the promoter carefully
collected the samples

The water council rep assisted by carefully putting the tops
 onto the sample jars.

I took the opportunity to check the pila for mosquito larvae - and
if you look closely you can see the bag of permethrin. (This water
is used for washing clothes, dishes and people, but should not be used for cooking)

All of the paperwork for the testing was completed at the local public health clinic.
The samples will be delivered to the lab for testing. 

Paperwork was completed by 9 AM.  The team from the clinic and members of the community water council headed off to the ANDA training center for a cooperative learning event of some kind. 

Back at the test site, the health promoter told us that studies are being held to determine if above-normal levels of chlorine in drinking water could be a factor in the high level of renal insufficiency in the Salvadoran population.  I am no expert, but I imagine the high levels of chemical use in agriculture and long periods of hard work in the hot sun without access to sufficient amounts of drinking water play a much more significant role in the high incidence of kidney disease in El Salvador than slightly elevated levels of chlorine in the water system.  Still, it is good to see that efforts are being made to provide safe water to families and that small efforts of cooperation are taking place with holistic teams in an effort to ensure Salvadorans right to safe, potable water.


  1. Really interesting to see the testing process. I wonder what percent of the country's water gets tested and how the test results ar acted upon.


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