The water is the color of hot chocolate. The 85-mile Rio de Paz (Peace River) is a natural border between El Salvador and Southeastern Guatemala and it empties into the Pacific Ocean. It originates in the mountains of Quezada, near the volcano Amayo. Along the way it picks up sediment, pathogens, runoff sewage, animal waste, and who knows what else. The result: acute dysentery, cholera, typhoid, flukes, and other deadly hazards.
The Peace River may look like hot cocoa, but it’s definitely not potable water. Not that I expected to be drinking it anyway. Before leaving for Guatemala we received the usual caution: “Just don’t drink the water,” they told us. “Don’t order a drink with ice cubes. And don’t eat anything that may have been washed in local water.” Gotcha.
I’m a New England boy. I’m comfortable in freezing temperatures and I start to sweat like pig when temps reach 80 degrees F. I had never hiked in a tropical climate before so I was caught off guard by the amount of water that I needed to stay hydrated. That first day hiking I wilted. A liter of water an hour is what I should have expected– rather than two measly liter bottles of water in my shoulder bag for the day. What was I thinking?
We were traveling in late July 2013 to Southeastern Guatemala, along the El Salvadoran border to visit people from our Catholic “sister parish.” The main church of our sister parish is in Comapa, but members of the parish are spread out over many miles in 30 remote villages in the region along the Rio de Paz (Peace River).
How do the people who live in these remote areas find clean drinking water? The river water is out of the question. It’s unhealthy and too much effort to bring water up into the mountain villages. There are streams running down the hills and mountains, but there’s no telling what the water is picking up along the way down the mountain – or who is contaminating the water upstream before it reaches your village.
I came across a young boy along the trail. He was sitting on a rock while his family bathed, washed clothing, and gathered drinking water from a pool that gathers as water runs down a gully on a steep hill in one village. Other people in his village come and do the same things in this little pool. Definitely not cool – but this points to the severe lack of clean water in the region.
Capturing rain water is a common way to collect drinking water. The water runs off the corrugated steel roofs into a gutter, through a downspout, into plastic water collection barrels. The government distributes pathogen killing chlorine tablets to the villages. These are used by some people, but scoffed at by others. Boil the water you say? Families already walk for miles to gather firewood for cooking and warmth. Firewood is being depleted at an alarming rate.
We saw people choosing to drink soda, rather than bottled water if they had the money. It also was not uncommon to see Coke in baby bottles because safe water was not available for infants. Dysentery from contaminated water kills babies at an alarming rate.
The trip was eye-opening in so many ways. I know that water is a vital to life. Sometimes I take for granted the availability of clean water in the U.S. I take for granted that when backpacking I carry a water filter system that easily provides potable water for my needs, while for much of the world finding clean drinking water is an impossible quest.