The CEL Medical Clinic and Nuevo Amanecer Protests

Last Friday we posted about the CEL hosting a medical clinic in the Lower Lempa and a community organizing a protest about the October floods. Our staff visited both events and we have a few more details.

Thursday night of last week, the CEL (the public/private corporation that manages the country’s hydroelectric dams) arrived in La Canoa (a.k.a. Comunidad Ocatavio Ortiz) and set up tents for the medical brigade, which was held on Friday. Word of the clinic spread pretty quickly and many in the region considered it to be an attempt to pacify those who blamed the CEL for the October flooding, and generate good will in the region.

On Thursday, a team from the CEL set up tents at the Unidad de Salud in La Canoa for the Friday medical brigade

The region’s general attitude towards the clinic was best summarized by a banner that some community members hung over the road next to the clinic sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning. The banner read:

“Ayer nos inundaron… Hoy nos endulzan con 4 pastillas…”

“Yesterday you flooded us… today you sweeten us with 4 pills…”

Banner over the road next to the Unidad de Salud in La Canoa

When the CEL arrived at the clinic on Friday morning to finish setting up, they wanted to take the banner down, but the a community representative would not allow it. According to locals, turnout was low. Even though people are in need of the services and medicines they did not want to take them from the CEL. When it became evident that turnout would be low, the CEL sent a truck around the communities advertising the clinic, but the turnout was underwhelming.

The communities’ response to the clinic was also somewhat underwhelming. As much anger and frustration among people throughout the region, the banner that hung across the road was the only form of protest at the clinic site. In fact, the community board in La Canoa approved the CEL using the clinic; some members of the board even took advantage of the clinic’s services.

Since we posted on Friday, we also learned more about the military presence in the clinic. Giving the military the benefit of doubt, the local Ombudsman for Human Rights said that the military was probably there to continue supporting people in the region. They had, after all, been an integral part of the rescue effort during the October floods.

A community member, however, approached one of the soldiers and asked why the military was there. He answered quite frankly that they were “providing security.” When pushed on who had given them orders to provide the CEL with security, the soldier seemed to realize that he had said too much and stopped answering questions. The Salvadoran constitution is clear that the military is prohibited from engaging in domestic issues unless it is a national crisis. Rescuing residents from the worst flooding in the nation’s history arguably falls into the category of national crisis, while providing protection for the CEL likely does not. The Ombudsman and other government agencies should investigate the use of the Military.

Though the banner was the only form of protest in La Canoa, sources clarified that the protest on the bridge in San Marcos de Lempa was a direct response to the medical clinic and the CEL’s apparent attempt to pacify those upset about the floods. Residents of Nuevo Amanecer took over the bridge on the main highway, shutting down the main corridor that traverses the southern coast of El Salvador to show that they could not be bought off. More than a couple protesters commented that they were disappointed that residents allowed the clinic to open in La Canoa without more protests.

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Protesters made only a couple broad demands during the two hours they had the highway closed down. They want the CEL and government to help them rebuild their lives and prevent more flooding in the future. And they wanted to send a clear signal that they would not be bought off.

Climate Change Blamed for Historic Flooding in El Salvador

Communities Organize Disaster Response & Demand More Government Collaboration

JIQUILISCO, El Salvador – As thousands of Salvadorans return to their homes and begin to rebuild their lives after last week’s historic rain and floods, many officials and civil society organizations in the region are blaming climate change for the catastrophe and calling upon the government to respond appropriately.

Don Lencho with some of his cattle in Zamorano

Last week, Tropical Depression 12-E and weather from Hurricane Jova poured more than 55 inches of rain over a seven-day period on Central America, far eclipsing Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the storm by which all others had been compared.

Though last week’s rain and flooding were more severe, local and national preparedness has improved dramatically since 1998, limiting the number of deaths in El Salvador to 34, compared to the 289 lives claimed by Hurricane Mitch.

Officials throughout Central American have attributed the extreme rain totals to climate change. Raul Artiga of the Central American Commission on Environment and Development (CCAD) stated, “Climate change is not something that is coming in the future, we are already suffering its effects.”

Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Minister of the Environment, elaborated that the frequency of extreme rainfall events, defined by more than 100 millimeters (4 inches) in 24 hours, or 350 millimeters (14 inches) in 72 hours, in El Salvador has increased continually since the 1960s. Chávez said that until the 1980s, El Salvador “had never been affected by a Hurricane in the Pacific.” Since then, several of the worst weather disasters have resulted from Pacific weather patterns, including Hurricane Paul in 1982, Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and now Tropical Depression 12-E.

According to a recent reportreport by The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), climate change is expected to take a greater toll on the region in the future. “Studies agree on the upward tendency of costs,” says the report, “whether defined as damage to well-being or as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

According to Roberto Valent, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in El Salvador, damages from last week’s extreme rain may reach more than US$1 billion.

The Lower Lempa region of San Vicente and Usulután has been one of the hardest hit in El Salvador. The region is supposed to be protected by earthen levees that line the banks of the Lempa River, the largest in the country. The levees, however, burst when an upstream dam released 9,500 cubic meters of water per second, for more than 12 hours – three times the flow the levees were built to withstand.

While community leaders in the Lower Lempa agree that climate change is responsible for the extreme rainfall, they have long argued that the Hydroelectric Executive Commission of the Lempa River (CEL, for its name in Spanish) mismanaged the dam and corresponding reservoir, prioritizing the generation of electricity over mitigating the risk of flooding downstream. In February 2011, Rigoberto Herrera Cruz, the Deputy Mayor of Jiquilisco, stated that

“We believe the CEL [Lempa River Hydro-electric Commission] who runs the dam do massive water releases because to allow the water out little by little means they would earn slightly less profit,”

On October 20th, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes met with leaders in the Lower Lempa and promised support for reconstructing communities and local agriculture. Jiquilisco Mayor David Barahona stressed that the Central Government must also reconstruct the levees and restore the drainage system that helps channel floodwaters out of the region. Local development organizations have joined in this call, adding that the CEL must also manage its hydroelectric dams in a manner that prioritizes the safety of the communities downstream over their desire to maximize electricity production.

Minister Chávez added to the reconstruction conversation, “we cannot rebuild in the same vulnerable way. If we do not take the [changing weather] phenomena into account, we will be throwing that investment away.”

The undersigned group of international organizations works in partnership and solidarity with various organizations, government officials, and community boards in the Lower Lempa. We echo the concerns and demands expressed by our local partners and Minister Chávez, and will support them in the days, weeks, and months ahead as they advocate for their communities.

Signed:

EcoViva – http://eco-viva.org/  (Contact: Nathan Weller, nathan@eco-viva.org)

Voices on the Border – http://votb.org/ (Contact: Rosie Ramsey, rosie@votb.org)

The Share Foundation – http://www.share-elsalvador.org/ (Contact: José Artiga, jose@share-elsalvador.org)

U.S. Sister Cities – http://elsalvadorsolidarity.org (Contact: sistercities.elsalvador@gmail.com)

Pictures of Evacuations and Shelters in Jiquilisco, Monday & Tuesday

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Matching Grant – Donate Now!

Michael Terry and Laura Turiano just pledged to match the next $2000 donated to Voices for flood relief. So if you click on the donate now button, we can match your contribution. If you donate $100, it will become $200!

The water is receding somewhat, but the need for food, water, clothing, and medical supplies is only increasing. Many communities in the Lower Lempa lost everything, and they need our assistance right now.

So click on the Donate Now Button to the right of this page, your contribution will be doubled!

Thanks to Michael and Laura, and all others who have contributed to this effort.

Flood Update – Tuesday

Sorry that we’ve been slow with an update this morning, but we didn’t receive much information out of the Lower Lempa until a moment ago.

Some good news to report; the communities of Nueva Esperanza, Ciudad Romero, Zamorano and others that are completely underwater have been completely evacuated. We have been worried about a group of 57 people (last night we reported 40, but that number was revised upward this morning) were stuck on the top of the Nueva Esperanza Community center and then the bell tower of the church last night. We just received word that they reached the emergency shelter at about noon today.

The water has also begun to recede a bit. While the road is still flooded in some places it is possible to get large trucks all the way down to La Canoa, which has been cut off for the past couple of days. Our staff also met up with several people from the shelter in Amando Lopez who made their way up to the main road and rode their bicycles through the flood waters all the way up to San Marcos.

The shelters are full in San Marcos, Tierra Blanca, Angela Montano, and Jiquilisco, and the conditions are poor, but our staff reports that supplies are starting to arrive.

The weather is supposed to be clearing up today, though our staff reports that it is still raining in the Lempa. Officials from Civil Protection have warned the general public that even if the weather is nice today, the forecast is for storms tomorrow and possibly Thursday so no one should let their guard down.

The latest reports are that there are 32 confirmed deaths in El Salvador, and two people are reported as missing. Schools and universities remain closed today and probably tomorrow. El Faro.net is reporting that the official number of evacuees remains at 32,000, and that over 20,000 houses have been destroyed.

The King of Spain has sent a Boeing 727 full of relief supplies to El Salvador, and it is currently sitting at the military airport in Comalapa being unloaded.

Though the news today is not as bad as yesterday, there are many, many concerns about what’s ahead. Eduardo Espinoza, the Vice-Minister of Public Health, is warning that the greatest threat to public health at this moment is contaminated well water. He is very concerned that in rural communities contaminated water will result in high rates of gastrointestinal infections, typhoid fever, hepatitis, and other diseases. The populations most affected by these diseases are the ones living in shelters and have little or no access to medical care. The ministry is working to get doctors and public health experts to the shelters.

Before the rains started last week, the government was predicting record harvests of basic grains like corn and beans. One estimate is that 80% of the nation’s agricultural crops are lost – which will devastate the local economy and food security. The Consumer Defense agency, a private advocacy and watchdog group in El Salvador, is monitoring the prices of foods and other products, especially imports, and so far there has not been a rise in food prices, but it is a real fear in the coming days and weeks.

The Voices staff is currently drafting a couple posts on different aspects of this disaster, and we’ll have a slideshow and update from the Lower Lempa later this afternoon.

US Embassy Announces Aid for Flood Relief

Today the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador announced an aid package worth $50,000 to support the Salvadoran Ministry of Civil Protection’s efforts to respond to the worst flooding in the country’s modern history. The package will help buy “fuel for emergency vehicles, as well as portable kitchen sets and hygiene kits for people staying in government shelters.”

The Embassy statement also says that they are “distributing equipment that was previously donated to the government of El Salvador by USAID in anticipation of this type of emergency.” The equipment includes plastic sheeting, 2800 hygiene kits, shovels, and other tools.

In a similar announcement, La Prensa Grafica is reporting this evening that the International Development Bank is releasing the first $25 million of a $50 million loan package. President Funes tonight said that the funds will be used for recovering from the disaster. The La Prensa Grafica article also reports that the governments of Spain, Taiwan, Guatemala and the United States have offered assistances, as has the Central American Bank of Economic Integration and the United Nations Development Program, but it is unclear whether any support has actually to reach those in shelters.

President Funes tonight also confirmed that there are 32 confirmed deaths in El Salvador, and that 3 other people are reported as missing, and 32,000 are evacuated to emergency shelters.

Another article in La Prensa Grafica reports that the Legislative Assembly today voted unanimously to declare a national emergency for the next 60 days. In part that waives all duties on aid coming into the country from aid organizations.

While the US Embassy’s contribution is a nice start, the international community seems a little slow to respond. The flooding, at least in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután, has reached epic proportions. There are thousands of people in shelters with no food or water, and many others are still stuck in their communities.

Perhaps the lack of international aid is linked to the lack of coverage by the international media. The AP put out a story yesterday that was carried on the Huffington Post, and the blogs for a couple major news outlets. But a quick scan of some of the major news websites (NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera English) found not one story on the flooding in Central America; forget about a story focusing on El Salvador. Maybe that will change with tomorrow’s news cycle.

This apparent lack of attention makes your contribution and support all the more important. Please help us in two ways:

1) Click on the Donate Now button and make a financial contribution to flood relief – we’ll make sure it gets directly to the community; and

2) inform others about the devastation and ask them to make a contribution.

We’ll be providing another update tomorrow morning.

 

Monday Flood Update!

Rain continues to fall over El Salvador and is forecast to do so for the next 48 hours. Last night the September 15th Dam was releasing water at an incredible 9000 cubic meter per second. To put that in perspective, at 2500 cm/sec the communities down river brace for flooding. The dam has not released at such high levels since Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the region in 1998. In fact, the total rainfall has now exceeded what fell during the infamous storm.

As a result, the Lempa Rivera is now pouring over the levees and into the communities. Our partners in the Lower Lempa report that there is 3.5 feet of water standing in Nueva Esperanza, Zanmorano, Ciudad Romero, and other communities.  The water is so high that the shelters in these communities have flooded and are being evacuated. Los Lotes, Babilonia, El Angel, Conventos, Las Arañas, Marillo, La Casona, and Marillo II are also evacuated.

The Camandos de Salvamentos are reporting this morning that last night they were trapped in the community of El Marillo until 3:30 this morning trying to evacuate 32 people. They were successful in getting this group to the shelter in San Marcos Lempa, but another 300 people remain trapped in El Angel and El Marillo. One of the trapped is a 62-year old woman who has a fractured spinal chord caused when a tree fell on her during the storm. Salvadoran media are also reporting that rescue teams, including those from the military and Comandos de Salvamento are trapped with evacuees in communities cut off from the rest of the region by raging flood waters.

According to La Prensa Grafica, rescue squads evacuated 2000 people last night in the lower lempa, bringing the total number of evacuees in the region to 4000, a number that is likely grossly underreported.

Life in the shelters is not good. We spoke with one of our friends who had been in the shelter in Amando Lopez but was moved yesterday to a shelter in Jiquilisco. She said that they have no blankets or mattresses, and spent the night on a cold, wet concrete floor. With funding from Voices (i.e. those of you who have contributed so far), she is going to local store this morning to purchase underwear for elderly women in the shelter who have diarrhea and were unable to bring a change of clothes when they evacuated.

Nationwide, 32 people have died as a result of the storms that began last Tuesday.  Tens of thousands are in shelters, and the entire country remains on red alert. Roads have been buried in landslides, bridges have been washed out, and much of the country is a disaster area.

Last night we received an email from our friend Cristina Starr who summed up a lot of the national efforts well:

“Government ministers and workers at all levels are laboring around the clock, the president comes on with messages every night and other officials during the day, journalists are working pretty much non-stop as well, you can see the stress accumulating.

Just a few weeks ago the Japanese government donated a bunch of little and big bulldozers and what good timing that was, they are all running around the country opening up roads.

In february the government got a loan from the world bank for 50 million dollars to be released when there are emergencies and apparently half of that will be coming shortly.”

There is some good news. For several years, Voices and many other international and domestic organizations have invested significant time and resources into preparing for disasters like this. And it seems to be paying off. The level of organization and coordination between the different government agencies and organizations has saved lives. But for these investments over the years, the death toll and impact on human life would be far greater.

We are continuing to support efforts in the shelter and will be taking more materials down to the communities today.

In previous posts we’ve call on you to support our efforts. So far you’ve come through with a bit over $5000 that is already buying mattresses, clothing and food. While this is a great start, the needs in the shelters are growing exponentially. Many readers of this blog have donated, but many more have not. Every little bit helps at this point, so please click on the DONATE NOW button and help now. We’ll likely be making wire transfers every day, so your support will arrive in the communities within 24 hours of your contribution.

And please share this post with your friends and family, and ask them to make a contribution.