We Need Levees!

Every year, communities throughout El Salvador suffer the consequences of preventable disasters such as flooding. But when community leaders and citizens approach their local or national government with proposals to mitigate the risks of such disasters, they are often met with the same refrain: “It’s not in the budget.”

Communities in the coastal areas of four of El Salvador’s major rivers (Rio Lempa, Rio Grande, Rio Jiboa, and Rio Paz) are taking a more proactive approach by getting involved in the budget-making process. Earlier this year, leaders and representatives from these flood-prone regions are leading a campaign to ensure that government officials make sure the funds for levees and other infrastructure projects ARE in the budget. Their timing is pretty good – with local and national elections just months away, politicians are in the mood to pander.

At an open meeting in July, representatives from communities in the four river basins compared their levee systems and what their communities need to minimize the risk of flooding. They reported the following:

Rio Grande (Usulutan):

In 1935, the Salvadoran government built 9 km (5.6 mi) of levee, all of which is currently in a state of serious deterioration.

In 2008, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle (MAG) built only 1 km of levee; divided between the two shores.

Rio Lempa (San Vicente and Usulutan)

Tecoluca, San Vicente (Western shore)

In 1998, MAG built 27 km (16.7 mi) of levee, which have all deteriorated.

In 2006, MAG repaired 150 meters (492 feet) of levee washed out after Tropical Storm Stan in 2005.

In 2008 MAG repaired another kilometer near the mouth of the river, but failed to rehabilitate several drains as had been planned.

Jiquilisco, Usulutan (Eastern shore)

In 1998, the government built 27.5 km (17 mi) of levee, which has deteriorated. The contractor was also to construct another 9.9 km (6.6 miles) in the central area of the levee system, but never did. MAG successfully sued the contractor for breach of contract, but they have not reported whether they have recovered the lost funding, and they have yet to allocate funds to complete the undone work.

In 2006, MAG reconstructed approximately 150 meters of the levee washed away by Tropical Storm Stan.

In 2008, MAG reconstructed 1 km of deteriorated levee and constructed another km of levee of the 9.9 km section in the Namcuchiname forest that was left incomplete in 1998. The ministry also rehabilitated several drains.

Rio Jiboa (Usulutan)

In 2008, MAG built 5.7 km (3.5 mi) of levee.

In June 2008, Mayor Carlos Ramos filed suit against a private contractor for illegally hauling sand and rock from the riverbed and shores of Rio Jiboa, making the area more prone to flooding. Un-regulated excavation has caused much destruction and instability for several years despite community efforts to prevent it.

Rio Paz (Auachapan)

In 2005, Tropical Storm Stan caused great damage to the levees.

In 2008, MAG rebuilt 1 km of the levee, but did not repair or rebuild any other sections.

Local communities will be at a much higher risk of flooding if proposed hydroelectric dams along the tributaries are constructed.

These accounts highlight how little the government has done over the years to address the very basic but necessary infrastructure needs of these marginalized and vulnerable communities. The government’s actions to date have been limited and done little to mitigate the risks of disaster. If their inaction was not enough, government officials have permitted the construction of hydroelectric dams that often collect and release water in a manner that causes unnecessary flooding in downstream communities. The government has also failed to enforce environmental laws against private companies such as Cessa – the largest cement producer in Central America – that excavate sand and rock from riverbanks, taking away the first line of defense against flooding.

Past advocacy efforts have proven successful. The communities of the Lower region of the Lower Lempa have been consistent in their demands that the government complete their system of levees. Their efforts have paid off; communities in the Lower Lempa have benefited from more infrastructure projects than any of the other regions now in the coalition. Among their efforts, communities organized the March for Life in 2003, in which citizens marched 70 miles from the Lower Lempa to San Salvador in five days to draw attention to the government’s failure to complete their levees and drainage ditches. The March for Life drew international attention and was successful in pressuring the MAG to continue its work on the levees.

The coalition is organizing another march for November 2008. This time they are marching not on behalf of one region, but for all four river basins vulnerable to flooding in El Salvador. The march will be a national call to action, serving notice to government officials that they must serve all Salvadorans or risk losing their office in the upcoming elections.

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