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.

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