Importance of Managing and Securing Water Access for the Northern Triangle

Access to clean water and sanitation facilities is an integral part of sustainable development. The absence of these systems has compounding downstream impacts on a region or country's economic resilience, democracy and governance, health access and infrastructure, food security, and fragility. This is true in several regions of importance to the United States, including the Northern Triangle counties of Central America.

The challenges surrounding water and development in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are not unique. Water scarcity and mismanagement, rain patterns, and food insecurity catalyze the corresponding lack of economic opportunity, human security, and increases in violence that, in part, fuel irregular migration from the Northern Triangle, primarily to the United States. The three countries face various development issues that compound water-related challenges, including extensive coastlines, large informal economies, overdependence on agricultural sectors, and a burgeoning youth population.

The Covid-19 pandemic acutely impacted employment rates, especially for informal workers, women, and indigenous populations. Poverty, educational and economic marginalization, and lack of social protections in rural areas have led thousands to abandon agriculture jobs, move to more urban areas, or migrate from the region. Heightened levels of violence throughout the region that have also contributed to migration. While violence rates in the Northern Triangle decreased during the pandemic due to lower mobility and slower business activity, violence is expected to increase again as the pandemic abates.

Impact of Climate Change on Water Access, Food Security, and Migration

The interplay between water access and climate change in the region will further exacerbate existing development, migration, and governance issues. By the year 2050, Central America's temperature is expected to rise by one to two degrees, dramatically affecting the region's soil quality, weather patterns, crops' susceptibility to disease, and rainfall. By 2100, El Salvador is projected to lose anywhere from 10–28 percent of its coastline. In 2021, farmers in the Guatemalan highlands lost nearly 80 percent of their corn production following an abnormal wet season. Rising sea levels in Honduras endanger the local ecosystems and economies dependent on the sustained health of mangrove forests and coral reefs.

As is true for most of the developing world, the Northern Triangle has seen an increase in food insecurity due to lack of access to water and unpredictable rain patterns. Water is a key constraint for smallholder agriculture. In fact, 33 percent of the population between southern Mexico and Panama requires humanitarian assistance because of food shortages that directly result from lack of water access. Scientists predict that the situation will only worsen, with global warming and reduced precipitation leading to a 30–87 percent decrease in regional crop fields by 2100. Sudden water increases and corresponding floods in the Northern Triangle have displaced over a combined 48,700 people in 2019. From 2018 to2021, an annual average of 407,000 people from the Northern Triangle fled to the U.S.-Mexico border due to conflict and impacts of climate change and natural disasters (mostly hurricanes and flooding). Improved management and climate adaptation initiatives will be critical in addressing damage caused to the region's agriculture and water distribution systems and mitigating climate migration.  

Northern Triangle Water Security and Management

Water management and ensuring related sanitation and hygiene services is a persistent challenge that requires careful attention to shared water sources and pollutants. The region's capacity to finance water projects is low, as national, local, and municipal governments struggle to generate enough revenue to invest appropriately in economic growth and development more generally. 

Communities most impacted by water scarcity include the 70 percent of workers in the informal economy, large rural communities, and other vulnerable populations such as indigenous communities. A World Bank report from 2014 found that countries in Central America still require further investments to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. The Project for Modernization of the Water and Sanitation Sector in Honduras aims to address persistent issues to ensure the safest and most effective provision of water and sanitation services in the Northern Triangle. Many Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) services, such as those provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR), strive to incorporate community participation and feedback while ensuring that the infrastructure facilitates equitable access to services. A significant challenge in achieving effective WASH strategies lies within the struggle for sustainability, as natural disasters can damage to infrastructure and population growth causes systems to fall behind consumer demand. Sustainability is further impacted by the lack of financial resources available to maintain and expand existing systems.

Previous efforts for collaboration in the region to improve water management and decrease pollution have been moderately successful. In November 1986, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras signed a technical cooperation agreement known as Plan Trifinio. In 1997, this plan became the Trinational Commission of Plan Trifinio (CTPT) after all three members signed the Trinational Treaty. The purpose of this plan is to preserve water wealth and biodiversity of ecosystems and to promote social, economic, and environmental growth within the Trifinio region and is still in effect today. From 2015–2020, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic signed and participated in the framework for a regional environmental strategy to help tackle regional problems. This strategy contained an effort to establish an integrated and effective management of water resources within the region to guarantee its sustainability. At a country level, El Salvador’s water agenda seeks to promote better water management and resource development to stimulate economic growth and improve development initiatives. Other joint initiatives have been proposed but increased attention, funding, and action are needed to address effective management of shared water sources and prevention of pollutants.  

Currently, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance has partnered with Global Communities to help provide WASH assistance in Guatemala after the tropical storms Eta and Iota by repairing damaged water systems and hiring and training community members to perform water rehabilitation. For Honduras, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance has partnered with GOAL to continue to revitalize WASH infrastructure (i.e., installing handwashing stations and distributing water treatment filters) so citizens can have access to clean drinking water and proper hygiene techniques post-Eta and Iota. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (now known as DFC), the Catholic Relief Services, and Azure SA have partnered together to finance Azure Source Capital (ASC). ASC’s purpose is to help small and rural cities in El Salvador have increased access to clean drinking water by supporting loans for cities to receive new and rehabilitated water pipelines, pumps, and storage tanks. 

Other initiatives include the sister organizations Advancing Local Development Through Empowerment and Action (ALDEA) and Asociación Bienestar, Progreso y Desarrollo (ABPD), located in Guatemala, are working to build latrines and potable water filters in the town of Tecpán. ALDEA and ABPD aim to conduct their work by empowering women and mobilizing community members. IUCN implemented the Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) in Guatemala and Mexico to improve water management of the Tacaná Watersheds. The project demonstrated that bottom-up coordination of water resources and bottom-up governance of water resources management such as micro watershed councils are critical for effective trans-boundary water management. 

United States Policy for Water in the Northern Triangle

The Biden administration recently released its Root Causes Strategy which aims to address the underlying reasons people migrate from Central America to the United States. The Root Causes Strategy lays out a framework of the types of resources, policy, and diplomatic efforts the United States will use in conjunction with expertise and resources provided by a broad group of private and public stakeholders. The strategy specifically identifies "clean water access" under the third strategic objective, Enhance Workforce Development, Health, Education, and Protection. Water is also an integral aspect of the fourth Strategic Objective, Build Resilience to Address Climate Change and Food Insecurity. The United States, through USAID, will continue to collaborate with regional partners and other stakeholders to improve water use and access in the region and ameliorate development challenges and migration flows.

USAID recently launched an initiative titled the Guatemala Entrepreneurship and Development Innovation initiative, which focuses on solving the urgent development challenges in Guatemala by using “technology-driven, market-led solutions.” USAID and the private sector will lead this initiative and work with local businesses and entrepreneurs to produce solutions as well as garner more local and international investment in supporting Guatemalan businesses. As of April 2022, USAID/BHA have continued to help partners in providing assistance to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In fact, from January 2022 to March 2022, 44,000 people from across the three countries received essential WASH services. The main services they fund include restoring sanitation infrastructure and increasing access to safe drinking water. USAID has also funded the regional project, the Upper Lempa Transboundary Water Resource Management, to help countries in Northern Central America address their water security risks and manage their water resources. 

Recommendations and Considerations

Lack of economic opportunities, violence, financial insecurity, environmental vulnerability, capacity to respond to emergencies, and rising food insecurity drive irregular migration from the Northern Triangle to the southern border of the United States. Tackling these challenges to create greater economic opportunity, human security, and development are at the core of the U.S. government’s strategy to tackle root causes of migration in Central America. Access to water is critical to ensuring the stability of the region, the health of the local population, and economic opportunity. Working with national and municipal governing bodies, and other relevant stakeholders, the U.S. government and USAID should consider the following recommendations:

Multilateral and Regional Collaboration

  • Work with subnational and municipal governing bodies to directly address the needs of each region and community. For example, those experiencing drought located in Guatemala's western highlands compared to those experiencing heightened unpredictable flooding in western Honduras will need different approaches and solutions.

  • Coordinate a collective action system across national and subnational governments, local and international private corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. Transnational and subnational water agreements are not only necessary for peace, stability, security, they are also essential for improving social and economic Currently, 60 percent of the world’s 276 trans-boundary rivers are not covered by any agreements on how to manage those transnational waters. As climate change exacerbates flooding and droughts, improving water management will be essential for mitigation and adaptation efforts. Cooperation is critical for the provision of water to the world’s most vulnerable people. Moreover, the establishment of water sharing agreements can promote recognition of water, sanitation, and health policies in legal frameworks, thus advancing equitable water distribution and access. The United Nation’s 2018 report on progress toward SDG 6 outlines the importance of member states’ full commitment to establishing trans-boundary cooperation over shared water resources. To achieve goals such as SDG 6 and the promotion of good governance, leaders should engage at a local, regional, and national level to integrate trans-governmental water cooperation into their water management systems.

  • Build on the Root Causes Strategy and other collaborative initiatives such as the Pomona Impact to address some of the challenges that are exacerbated by water mismanagement and climate change. For example, creating better safety net policies, hiring practices, and economic opportunities will strengthen financial security of both urban and rural communities in the Northern Triangle. Improving and formalizing the region's local private sector can promote broad-based economic growth within the region. If successful, this plan can dampen the threats of the current water crisis as farmers could adopt environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural practices, improve their water and land management, and reduce food insecurity.

Adaptation, Management, and Financing

  • Encourage climate adaptation and mitigation strategies throughout the region. These can include improved water management, expansion of municipal capacity, policies targeting food loss and waste, rainwater harvesting in high-flood areas, implementation of sustainable technologies (e.g., solar water pumps and micro-pollutant decreasing nanomaterials) to improve agriculture processes, infrastructure investment and maintenance, and incentives for private adoption of sustainable practices.

  • Encourage regenerative agriculture and expand irrigation to mitigate the impacts of climate change on smallholder farming communities. This can include helping farmers improve hydro-economic management and resilience of crops. Farms that maintain healthier soil also manage to hold, retain, and drain water in order to grow better crops.

  • Implement innovative financing mechanisms to increase agricultural and community resilience especially at the municipal level. This is also important to foster entrepreneurship and small and medium enterprise development. Blended finance projects to finance water infrastructure and agricultural solutions can have long-term positive effects on a community and decrease stress.

Water management and infrastructure is vital to the success of development initiatives in the Northern Triangle, especially for vulnerable populations. USAID can play a pivotal role in facilitating climate adaptation initiatives, multilateral and regional cooperation, development of WASH infrastructure, and innovative financing and agricultural mechanisms. These measures will be essential to increase water security and access, mitigate the deluge of natural disasters, address root causes of migration, and promote increased prosperity in the region.

Conor M. Savoy is a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Elena I. Méndez-Leal is a program coordinator and research assistant for the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

This commentary is made possible by the generous support of USAID.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Conor M. Savoy

Conor M. Savoy

Former Senior Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development
Elena I. Méndez Leal

Elena I. Méndez Leal

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Project on Prosperity and Development