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Ecuador: The right to water for Afro-descendant communities in Esmeraldas

20 June 2023

The province of Esmeraldas in the northern coastal part of the country is one of the most strategically located, ecologically rich and biodiverse regions of Ecuador. It forms part of the Chocó, a celebrated ancestral territory for Afro-descendants that stretches from Panama down to Manabí province, Ecuador. Known as the Gran Comarca and Reino de Los Zambos, the Ecuadorian Chocó region is renowned for the rebellious spirit of African descendants who settled in these lands centuries ago. The historical presence of Afro-descendants in the region resulted from the establishment of palenques – settlements and camps made up of escaped or freed formerly enslaved persons – independent of colonial rule. 

Despite the geographic and cultural wealth of the region, the Afro-descendant population in Esmeraldas – Afro-Esmeraldeños – often confront high levels of poverty. While the Afro-descendant and Black population makes up 70 per cent of the total Esmeraldas population, 85 per cent of them live below the poverty line and 23 per cent have little or no access to basic services such as water, health and housing. Added to this is the daily racial discrimination Afro-Esmeraldeños encounter, rooted in colonial prejudices towards African descendants.  

The exclusion of Afro-Esmeraldeños is evidenced by the many water challenges faced by this community. Among the problems they face is lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. Ecuador broke new ground in 2008 when its parliament adopted constitutional amendments granting rights to nature and other environmental safeguards in its Constitution. Article 12 mandates that ‘the human right to water is essential and cannot be waived’. The document adds: ‘Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is inalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.’ Additionally, the 2014 Organic Law of Water Resources, Uses and Utilization of Water amplifies the articles enshrined in the Constitution to protect the right to water deeming it inalienable, imprescriptible and indefeasible. Despite these legal frameworks, Esmeraldas’ Public Water and Sanitation Company(EPMAPS) does not currently supply local communities with sufficient water.  

Unless corruption, government inefficiency, lack of capacity and endemic racism are addressed as root problems, Afro-Esmeraldeños will continue to face major water challenges in years to come.

Afro-Esmeraldeño communities are mostly located in remote and hard-to-reach areas, making access to water challenging. Even though 64 per cent of urban houses have public water access, in parts like the northern cantons of San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro infrastructure for water supply and sanitation is woefully inadequate. Residents often depend on public water delivery tanks or else have to purchase water storage tanks to access potable water supplies.  

Such is the case for Mirian Orejuela and her family, living in the city of Esmeraldas. Water is rationed in most neighbourhoods, leaving families with supply for only two or three days of the week. Mirian explains:  

People are used to having water storage tanks in their homes in case of water failure. Quite often us Esmeraldeños are without water for two weeks at a time, sometimes three weeks, even months. Sadly, people are used to living like this. In Esmeraldas people cannot live without water tanks, but not everybody can afford them.

In the more precarious parts of Esmeraldas city there is hardly any water, yet people have no option but to continue paying water bills. ‘This is absurd,’ Mirian complains, ‘because poorer people are paying for a service that is not even being delivered! Besides, the infrastructure has never been well thought out, that’s why it fails. It always, always, fails,’ Mirian concludes.  

The cost of buying a water tank from a private water company can be anywhere between US$25 and US$40 for 8–10 cubic metres. Since purchasing water tanks is beyond the reach of many Afro-Esmeraldeños, people often rely on water supply from local rivers, canals or wells. This is especially the case in rural areas, where many communities do not have access to piped water or proper sanitation facilities; indeed, only 9 per cent of rural houses have access to public water services in the Esmeraldas province.  

Rosa Mosquera, a resident from Limones, a small island that forms part of the Eloy Alfaro canton close to the Colombian border, explains: ‘This has been an issue since I was a little girl. We used to collect water from the well or we would rely on water delivery in tanks to access it. We had to use water carefully to make it last. The various governments we have had over the years haven’t resolved this crisis. It’s a serious issue.’

Despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by the National Development Bank in the maintenance and development of EPMAPS’ water system, Afro-Esmeraldeños continue to be denied their right to safe drinking water. Juan Montaño, another resident of the city of Esmeraldas, argues that despite the financing of infrastructure, there is no guarantee water quality will improve, as failures in the piping network are a regular occurrence in his neighbourhood. For Juan, governmental corruption, coupled with political and administrative deficiencies, are the root causes of Esmeraldas’ water crisis. For him, widespread corruption and greed are the main reasons why Afro-Esmeraldeños cannot fully enjoy their right to water. There is no formal mechanism at central government level capable of overseeing how funds and resources are channelled, and where money is being spent at the municipal level.

Although Ecuador’s constitutional and legislative provisions may seem promising on paper, the reality of Afro-Ecuadorian communities in Esmeraldas is starkly different. The implementation and enforcement of water rights is not happening on the ground. Unless corruption, government inefficiency, lack of capacity and endemic racism are addressed as root problems, Afro-Esmeraldeños will continue to face major water challenges in years to come.

The voices of people on the ground further highlight the need for the central government to institute a governing body with a rigorous and transparent framework to oversee water investment, infrastructure, monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning. Unequal distribution of water and sanitation services in northern Ecuador is a systemic problem that hinges on social, economic and political factors that authorities cannot continue to overlook or ignore. For a province with such vibrant historical and cultural significance as Esmeraldas, the violation of such fundamental rights as the right to water is a clear sign that Black and Afro-descendant communities in Ecuador continue to suffer neglect, even after hundreds of years of discrimination and marginalization.

We are grateful to members of Haiti Support Group for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: A young man lights a torch to avoid insect bites while collecting shells in the Tambillo mangrove swamp, San Lorenzo. Most inhabitants survive on this economic activity. The mangroves are in an alarming state of environmental pollution caused in part by sewage and solid waste. San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Credit: Johis Alcaron.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


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