Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Marvin and Hiedi Video

Those of you who have been on a Voices on the Border Delegation to El Salvador in recent years have likely gotten to know our dear friends Marvin and Heidi. They live in Nueva Esperanza, which was underwater last week during the historic rains and floods.

During one of our flood updates we mentioned that Marvin and Heidi had been trapped Nueva Esperanza with 55 other people when flood waters were at their highest. Sunday October 16th, they were forced to spend the night in the bell tower of the church after currents got to strong for the boats to evacuate more people. They were rescued the next afternoon after the rains slowed and the water began to recede.

Yesterday we found a video of their evacuation in which they share their experience as they are boating down the main road out of town.

We also want to thank all of you who donated to the fundraising effort. Your support allowed us to provide material support for those who were forced to their homes and lived in emergency shelters for a week or more. We are continuing to raise money to engage in two post-flood activities 1) providing farmers with support so they can replant their fields and get back on their feet as fast as possible; and 2) supporting local advocacy campaigns for appropriate rebuilding of the levees and drainage system in the Lower Lempa.

 

agriculture, Climate Change, El Salvador Government

Salvadoran Government Catching up to Communities on Climate Change

Yesterday we issued a press release reporting that Salvadoran government officials attribute last week’s record rainfall and flooding to climate change.

This morning Hernán Rosa Chávez, the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, told La Presnsa Grafica that El Salvador is about to “begin the process of shielding itself against climate change.” He wants El Salvador to be a model country for the international community on how to live with climate change.

He said, “we have to prepare ourselves for this [the rains] to occur every year. We have to make changes in agriculture so that [farmers] will not lose their crops. We have to build an infrastructure thinking about vulnerability, and develop the country without needing to destroy it.”

While these statements are an important recognition of the problem, they are also another sad reminder that the time for the United States and other industrialized nations to change their greenhouse-gas emitting ways is running out. And its countries like El Salvador that are suffering as a result.

With regards to Minister Chávez’ plan to change the agriculture sector so farmers won’t lose their crops, communities long-ago recognized that extreme weather patters would affect their crops. In the Lower Lempa region of Usulután, one of the most affected during last week’s historic rains and floods, farmers have been converting some of their fields to rice which is more flood resistant. That have also been installing irrigation systems that will allow them to plant corn in the dry season when the risk of flooding is low. Local development organizations and farmers talk openly about climate change and how to better protect their crops, and increase their food security.

Levee Break
Rio Lempa flowing through a levee break on October 13th, days before the flooding got really bad

If the Salvadoran government really wanted to help, they could work with local farmers to protect domestic markets for their crops instead of allowing cheap imports from heavily subsidized US farmers to run them out of business. In September, President Funes was in the Lower Lempa to announce an $18 million aid package for the region that will in part help farmers convert to “exotic crops” such as cashew nuts that they can sell in the US. Such crops are even more sensitive to climate change and would subject Salvadoran farmers to the ups and downs of US markets. And if locals are not growing corn and beans, it creates a greater market for US farmers. If the Funes administration really wants to help the domestic agricultural sector respond to climate change, they should help provide farmers access to simple technologies that give them more control over their crops, and protect domestic markets for domestically grown products.

Minister Chávez also said the government will improve the nation’s infrastructure to decrease vulnerability. That’s great, but communities in the Lower Lempa and other river basins around El Salvador have been asking for better levees and drainage systems for more than 10 years. The levees have failed in several of the most recent storms, and since 2003, communities have marched from the Lower Lempa to San Salvador to demand they repair them. It’s great that the Minister supports these efforts now. Imagine if he and other government officials had supported these efforts last year or the year before. Maybe Nueva Esperanza, Ciudad Romero, Zamorano, Nuevo Amanecer, Salinas del protrero, and hundreds of other impoverished communities would have faired a little better last week.

Climate change is a reality. And with all due respect for Minister Chavez, if there is a silver lining to last week’s rains its that the government and international community may begin supporting communities that have been trying to deal with it for years.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams

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)

Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Elections 2012, Uncategorized

Salvadoran Political Institutions, Part One: New Voters and Local Voting Locations

Before the rain started falling two weeks ago, dumping over 50 inches of rain on El Salvador and causing extreme flooding around the country, we began working on a series of articles regarding recent reforms to the Electoral Code. We will continue to report on the flooding and cleanup efforts, but we don’t want to do so at the cost of discussing other important issues in El Salvador – of which there are many.

“To guarantee Salvadoran society the autonomous and effective administration of democratic electoral processes; a reliable electoral register; prompt execution of the judicial aspects of the electoral process; full exercise of political rights and the promotion of a democratic civic culture.”

The “Mission” of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)

“The Electoral Register that we have audited is, in general terms, a reliable instrument. This consideration is accompanied, as is often the case in the international experience, with some challenges to improve upon.”

-Pablo Gutiérrez, Director of the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation at the Organization of America States (OEA), in a 2007 audit of El Salvador’s Electoral Register, quoted in the TSE 2009 annual report

On March 11, 2012, Salvadorans will cast votes for all 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and mayor in each of the 262 municipalities. As the parliamentary and municipal elections approach, Voices will be considering a variety of topics relating to Salvadoran political institutions and the pursuit of democracy.

Today’s installment examines new voter registration and attempts to bring voting centers closer to homes. In both areas, we look at recent attempts to improve voter participation.

New Voters – More than 75 percent of potential new voters ineligible to vote

On the 2012 election calendar, voter registration was set to close on September 12, 2011 180 days before the March elections. However, the Electoral Code says that any Salvadoran turning 18 years old after registration closes and before the election takes place will be included in the Electoral Register and eligible to vote provided that they register for a national identification card, or DUI, before the September 12 deadline.

While more than 58,000 Salvadorans will turn 18 during that window of time, fewer than 14,000, or 23.8 percent of these potential new voters registered for a DUI and will be eligible to participate, according to the National Citizens Registry (RNPN). The other 76.2 percent did not register for a DUI before a modified September 19 deadline, despite a registration campaign by the TSE.

The TSE praised the registration in a recent statement. “We are very satisfied with this campaign,” said TSE President Eugenio Chicas, referring to a three-week-long effort to register prospective voters. RNPN President Fernando Arturo Batlle Portillo similarly called the registration “successful,” even though 44,000 Salvadorans that could be participating in the March elections will not be.

This year’s campaign is better than some in the past. According to the TSE, the 2008 campaign leading up to 2009 national elections lasted four months and only registered 6,000 new voters out of 50,000 potential voters. In that light, the campaign can be seen as an improvement. However, as TuCanalLocal points out, the official 2009 TSE report lists 14,695 new voters under the age of 18, significantly more than the 6,000 claimed by TSE.

Nonetheless, Chicas said that more could be done to incorporate new voters who should be able to participate in elections. “The challenge remains significant and we should continue our efforts. I believe that we still lack work on a community level, we need more time and resources.”

The June-July 2011 constitutional standoff between the judicial and legislative branches is one problem with registration this year. The campaign to register new voters was scheduled to begin on August 12 and end 31 days later on September 12. However, the Legislative Assembly took longer to approve the budget for the General Election Plan (PLAGEL) than expected, pushing the start of the campaign back to August 29.

To compensate for the delay, the Assembly granted a one-week extension for voter registration, but the campaign still lost 10 days, lasting 21 days instead of the 31 days planned. Many of the new voters registered during this extension period – 7,000 new voters registered by September 12, according to the RNPN. Between September 12 and September 19, an additional 7,000 registered, with almost 5,000 registering on September 19th alone.

While 44,000 eligible youth will be sitting out the March 2012 elections, El Salvador now has 14,000 new names on the voter registry.

Local Voting Locations, or El Voto Residencial

“The current electoral model in El Salvador … concentrates voting locations in urban centers … without considering the distance that the voter will have to travel.” (TSE, “Concepts of residential voting”)

El Salvador is one of the last Latin American countries without a “residential voting” electoral model. For some citizens, the nearest voting location is 70-kilometers away. For many, the trek can be expensive, difficult, and a disincentive to vote.

The TSE is planning to implement a residential voting program throughout El Salvador over the course of the 2012 and 2014 elections, fulfilling political promises made continually since 1994. Under the new system, the TSE will open voting locations based on proximity to voters to facilitate access and improve electoral participation.

The initiative began in 2006, when the TSE implemented a “Voto Residencial” (Residential Voting) pilot program in seven municipalities. In 2009, the TSE expanded the pilot program to the Department of Cuscatlán, scaling up from 7 to 23 total municipalities. In the March 2012 elections, 185 of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities in central and eastern El Salvador are expected to participate in the program, plus key urban areas of San Salvador and Santa Tecla.

Reports on the 2006 and 2009 pilot initiatives demonstrate the impact of the program on the participating municipalities. Under the program, 18 voting centers grew to 73, averaging between two and ten centers per municipality.

The program had a positive effect on voter participation. In the 2004 presidential elections, 70 percent of Salvadorans on the Electoral Register in Cuscatlán cast a vote compared a national average of 67 percent. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Cuscatlán had 63.5 percent electoral participation compared to a national average of 54 percent. In 2009, the pilot program in Cuscatlán had 65.5 percent participation in parliamentary elections and 71.5 percent participation in presidential elections compared to 54 and 63 percent respectively on the national level. While national participation remained the same or fell, participation in Cuscatlán, already higher than the national average, rose in both presidential and parliamentary elections.

Additionally, the program is expected to facilitate voting access for many of the most vulnerable members of Salvadoran society, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those without the financial means to travel a longer distance.

When voting centers are closer to home, it is also more difficult for political interests to perpetrate electoral fraud by bringing in people from other communities, or as has been alleged in previous elections, from Honduras or Nicaragua. Citizens are more able to police the voting registry and identify people that are not from their community.

Poco a poco, Salvadoran institutions are working together, or in some instances forcing other branches of government, to reform the electoral system so that more people vote, and to ensure their votes are counted. The campaign to register new, young voters and expanding voting centers are only two of the most recent reforms. In the coming weeks and months we will explore reforms to the ballot that voters will use once they are in the booths, efforts to decentralize power once held by political parties, and other changes.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters

Flood Update – Photos from Salinas del Potrero and Nueva Esperanza

Over the weekend Voices staff was able to visit Salinas del Potrero and Nueva Esperanza in the Lower Lempa with our friends from Cristosal. Our initial reports from Salinas were that the flooding cut off the community from the rest of the region but that the damage was minimal. Our visit tells a different story. Many in Salinas continue to live in the community shelter, standing water still obstructs the road going into the community, and many of the community’s fisheries have been flooded out and damaged.

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Our staff also visited other communities in the region – Ciudad Romero, Nueva Esperanza, and others and the news is not all bad. The majority of the people who have been living in the emergency shelters have returned home and are starting the arduous task of cleaning up. Electricity and water has been restored in most communities, and people seem to be in fairly good spirits considering the circumstances.

Jessie, voices field volunteer, and 35 youth from OSCA, a youth group in Morazan, traveled to Nueva Esperanza to help locals with the clean up. Read her report with photos here.

 

 

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Later today we will provide a more thorough update on the survey of the damage.

Thanks to all who have contributed to the recover effort! Though this has been one of the worst disasters in modern Salvadoran history, everyone has worked together to minimize the impact on our local partners. We have a lot of work to do, but the response has been inspiring.

Advocacy, U.S. Relations

18,000 deported from U.S. to El Salvador

In the past twelve months, the United States government has deported over 400,000 immigrants  back to their countries of origin, and according to a report by El Faro, 95% of the deportees were Latin American. The number of deportees has risen by 40,000 since 2008 when almost 350,000 people were deported from the U.S.

The vast majority (286,893) of the deportees were Mexican. The country with the second most deportees is Guatemala (33,324). Honduras is third (23,822) and El Salvador is fourth (18,870). Of those deported, 55% had been charged with some crime in the U.S.

President Obama ran on a platform that included immigration reform as one of his top priorities, but we have still seen no action other than a failed attempt at passing the Dream Act. Certainly much of the inaction on reform is attributable to the Tea Party Movement and the extreme positions taken by the Republican presidential candidates, who seem to stumble over each other to take the most extreme position possible on immigration enforcement.

According to the online journal Infowars, immigration enforcement has been a cash cow for private prisons. There are 2 million immigrants in private prisons in the United States. The government pays these prisons $45-130 per day for their detention.

Though the political climate is not favorable to immigration reform, our politicians need to at least keep trying and we have to keep this issue on the front on the front page of the papers.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters

Phase II: Rehabilitation

According to the Environmental Minister, more than 1500 millimeters (59 inches) of rain fell between October 10th and October 20th, almost double the rain accumulation of any other weather disaster in El Salvador since 1969. Now the rainfall is coming to an end, or at least diminishing, as a cold front moves in from the southwest. Rivers are expected to remain high, but gradually start to fall. The Environmental Ministry reports that the September 15 Dam is releasing 1800 cubic meters of water per second and that the water level of the Lempa river remains above river banks.

However, even the short-term problems are far from over. The ground remains supersaturated with water. Civil Defense authorities report that approximately 2,000 square kilometers, or 10 percent of the national territory is flooded. 4 bridges have collapsed and another 14 are damaged on key routes, limiting accessibility.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reports that there are 38,682 Salvadorans evacuated to shelters. Although Civil Defense authorities announced today that some evacuees might begin to return home, approximately 12 percent of evacuees will need temporary housing for 4 to 6 months, according to the PAHO.

In the Lower Lempa many families have at least gone to visit their homes, but most are not yet ready to return until there is potable water.  The shelters are urging people to stay until water is restored, especially families with young children.  The water project, the collectively owned and administered water service in the Lower Lempa, said that the tubes were damaged in three different places, and one of the ruptures is still submerged in flood water.  Two different community associations and Oxfam are working to install different water tanks throughout the communities in the mean time.