Climate Change, Disasters

May’s Storm Surges Disrupt Coastal Water Tables

Since May 2-3, Salvadoran coastal communities have experienced a series of large waves, or storm surges, that roar over the shoreline and inland. La Libertad, Majahual, and other communities have suffered significant loss, including at least one death. The surges have been reported from Mexico to Chile and are believed to be the result of storms far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Dramatic videos show large waves flooding houses, swimming pools, restaurants, and seaside villages, but they don’t show the long-term affect on water tables in coastal communities.

MontecristoMontecristo in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután reports that since the surges began earlier in the month, their well water has been contaminated with seawater. There is no freshwater available in the community. This would be a serious issue in any community, but for Montecristo it is especially serious because the community is located in dense mangrove forests and is only accessible by foot or boat. There is no way that a water truck could get to Montecristo and supply them with fresh water.

Voices on the Border met with the community leaders and the Bajo Lempa Water Cooperative and have begun the process of getting them tapped into the region’s water system, but this will take time and a relatively large financial investment. And the community wants to be sure that they do not disturb the mangrove forests they are charged with protecting. In the meantime, the community has to bring in 5-gallon jugs of water by boat – an expense that no one can afford. Voices will meet with the community again next week to continue planning how to best address the issue.

There are reports that many small communities along the coast are reporting the same issue – salinization of their well water.

Storm surges are not random occurrences. They are a product of hurricanes and cyclones, and can travel for thousands of miles, affecting regions far from the storm. Scientists predict that as ambient and ocean temperatures rise with climate change, and cause larger more powerful storms, coastal regions will be subject to larger and more devastating surges. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that “the greatest threats from sea level rise and future storm-surge effects will likely occur along the Pacific Coast,” which is where the latest storm surges landed.

In 2009, the Center for Global Development published a paper titled, “Climate Change and the Future of Storm-Surge Disasters in Developing Countries.” It identifies El Salvador as among the top five low-income countries vulnerable to storm surges. They estimate that more than 50% of El Salvador’s coastal agricultural economy and nearly 100% of wetlands are at risk of flooding caused by storm surges. “For the majority of indicators used in this research, we observe the most consistently-severe exposure to risks for El Salvador, Yemen, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Togo.”

Even more specific, however, in a paper published in 2007 titled “Vulnerability and Adaption to Climate Change of Rural Populations in the Coastal Plain of El Salvador,” experts predicted that water tables in the Bajo Lempa would be salinized by 2020. The report says there is a medium to high level of threat that by 2020 there will be “salinization of aquifers due to the combined effects of floods and tides in the coastal fringe.”

This month’s storm surges are just another reminder that climate change is a reality and is happening now, and it is the impoverished communities around the world are suffering the consequences. Even if we are able to get Montecristo tapped into the Bajo Lempa water system, it won’t decrease the emissions of green house gases or decrease the risks of future storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

Climate Change, Disasters

Earthquake Update: The waves in Isla de Mendez

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Map of the area hit on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, about 5 miles from Octavio Ortiz

Last night two people were injured in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and are currently in the hospital.  The injuries were caused by very high waves that struck them as they were guarding the sea turtle egg hatchery on the beach of Isla de Mendez.  Two other people were also swept away by the waves, but were able to swim back to safety.

Community members reported that waves reached heights of 8 meters (26 feet) and that the water came inland about 350 meters (383 yards) which crossed the barrier peninsula and reached fresh water land.

Other nearby communities were on alert until 1:00 in the morning.  Communities such as Octavio Ortiz and Amando López were kept on full alert by the emergency speaker that blared warnings throughout the night.

Disasters

Earthquake off the Coast of El Salvador

An earthquake shook parts of El Salvador last night around 10:30. The USGS and media at first reported a magnitude of 7.4 located just off the coast of Usulután, roughly the same location of the January 2001 earthquake that caused so much damage and loss of life.

This morning, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) is reporting that the earthquake was more like a magnitude 6.7 and that the epicenter was about 250 km (155 miles) south of the coast of Usulután. There were supposedly several aftershocks and earthquakes that finally ended around 2:00 am.

We are hearing that communities along the coast felt the earthquake but that it wasn’t strong. La Prensa Grafica said that others around the country didn’t feel it at all. Similarly, we have not heard any reports of damage.

Immediately after the earthquakes, the Tsunami Alert Center in Hawaii issued a tsunami warning, but it was called off around midnight. There was a report of a small wave, around 4 inches high, reaching the coast, but no damage was reported. During a conference call last night, Jorge Meléndez, the Director of Civil Protection, denied the threat of a Tsunami and said that it was the result of a miscalculation.

El Salvador is located on the Ring of Fire; a fault line circles much of the Pacific region. As a result, Salvadorans experience earthquakes on a regular basis. Every now and then there strong quakes that cause real damage. Some of the most notable are the January and February 2001 earthquakes that killed more than a thousand people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. In most recent history, there were significant quakes in 1986, 1982, 1965, and 1951.

If quakes weren’t enough to worry about, El Salvador is entering the most dangerous time of year for flooding. The most serious flooding events in recent history have all occurred between the end of August and early November – the last half of hurricane season. It’s been raining pretty heavily lately and this morning there are reports from around the country of landslides blocking roads and causing problems.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Climate Change Education in the Schools: El Salvador and the U.S.

The climate change debate has made its way into U.S. classrooms, as school boards and legislators try to force teachers to present “both sides of the issue.” In El Salvador, however, schools are taking a different approach. Government officials and educators have moved way beyond questioning the reality of climate change and are implementing a curriculum that teaches the science behind the resulting extreme weather patterns and how to mitigate the associated risks.

In January, a writer for the Wall Street Journal Law Blog posted about “a new battle brewing in America’s classrooms” – climate change. As U.S. schools have begun teaching climate change to their students, state legislatures and school boards have reacted by requiring teachers to also present the other side of the debate.

In Texas and Louisiana, state boards of education now require classrooms to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Kentucky, state legislators have proposed bills that would require teachers to dedicate equal time teaching climate change and climate change skepticism.

In El Salvador, however, schools have adopted a climate change curriculum that goes beyond an academic discussion about whether or not it’s a reality. Salvadoran teachers, instead, are now tasked with the more serious task of preparing their students for future extreme weather events caused by climate change.

According to an article posted on Alertnet, the government now mandates that all public and private schools in El Salvador teach the science behind climate change as well as how students can deal with the increased risks caused the extreme weather.

In October 2011, Tropical Storm 12-E dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador in 10 days, causing the worst flooding in the country’s history. The storm and its aftermath were a wakeup call for many Salvadorans. Communities along the coast, especially those in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután and San Vicente, have experienced regular flooding for the past several years. Tropical Storm 12-E, however, was the first storm since Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that affected multiple regions throughout the country. In the days after the storm, government officials, including the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, attributed the storm to climate change and warned that because of it, these weather events are the new norm.

The Salvadoran schools system is responding by joining the effort to teach more than the science of climate change. Government officials are using the schools to teach environmental safety. According to the Alertnet article, “in math, biology, and physics, students will undertake exercises that estimate potential damage from climate-linked extreme weather, and explore how to counteract and reduce its effects.”

The article quotes a 12-year-old student who believes “the teaching approach will be well-received in the classroom, particularly as so many families in El Salvador have had first-hand struggles with the country’s recent extreme weather.”

Since Hurricane Mitch, government agencies and civil society have prepared communities to deal with extreme weather events. Since President Funes took office in June 2009, the government has strengthened the Civil Protection network, which they elevated to a government Ministry. Their success over the past few years are measurable. Hurricane Mitch, the previous high-water mark, claimed over 240 deaths. Tropical Storm 12-E produced more rain and more severe flooding, destroyed more crops, and affected many more communities, but the loss of life was limited to 34 people.

If predictions are accurate, El Salvador will see more storms like Tropical Storm 12-E, and efforts to prepare the population is a matter of life and death. In theory, there is still time to reverse or decrease the impacts of climate change over the long-term, but that would require principal polluters such as the U.S. and China to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Its hard to imagine how the U.S. will ever cut emissions voluntarily, considering that the teachers can’t even talk about climate change without interference from politicians.

Arts, Disasters

Calle 13 en El Salvador for Flood Relief!

Calle 13 is performing in San Salvador on Saturday to benefit those impacted by the  October flooding. Tickets went on sale this week – the price was a donation of rice, beans or other grains that will be distributed to flood victims.

The grammy-award winning group, which is comprised of René Pérez Joglar (aka Residente), his stepbrother Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (aka Visitante), and their sister lleana (aka PG-13), is from San Juan, Puerto Rico but has become well-known throughout Latin America for their social and political commentary.

Yesterday, people of all ages waited five and six hours in line carrying bags of grains for the chance to get tickets to Saturday’s show. Event organizers set up several ticket distribution sites around San Salvador, including Apopa, Mejicanos, Soyapango, in front of the FMLN’s office in San Salvador.

According to one news report, general admission tickets cost 2 pounds of beans, while five pounds of beans and five pounds of rice will buy VIP tickets.

The show will be at the Estadio Mágico González at 2:00 on Saturday, and event organizers expect a sold out crowd of 30,000 people – that’s a lot of rice and beans! The show is being hosted by the Mayor’s office of Soyapango in cooperation with the National Institute of Sports and the National Administration of Aquaducts and Drains (ANDA).

Here’s a recent Calle 13 video:

Climate Change, Disasters

Update from the Lower Lempa

A couple updates from the Lower Lempa this morning. Three weeks after floods devastated the region, communities have organized the first demonstration against the CEL (the corporation that manages the hydroelectric dam upstream from the communities). While the demonstration is going on, the CEL and Salvadoran Military have set up a health brigade in the community of La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Information is still coming in, but here’s what we know so far.

Residents from Nuevo Amanecer, one of the communities most devastated in the October floods, have taken over the Highway 2 bridge that crosses the Lempa River just north of the communities in the Lower Lempa. The highway is one of the main roads through the southern region of the country and the bridge is the only way to get over the river without driving more than an hour north to the Pan American Highway.

Bridge over the Lempa River, currently held by residents of Nuevo Amanecer. This photo was taking during the October floods, when the river was flooding communities downriver.

People on the ground say the Nuevo Amanecer residents are protesting the CEL and their management of the dam before and during Tropical Storm 12-E, which dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador. Locals throughout the region, not just Nuevo Amanecer, believe that the CEL manager failed to release enough water in the early part of the storm forcing them to release at extremely high levels during the later part of the storm, resulting in the extreme flooding.

Communities in the region are traumatized and have held a few open meetings to discuss the best way to respond to the CEL and advocate for reconstruction. Today’s protest doesn’t appear to have been planned at any of these region-wide meetings, but surely other communities are supportive of their efforts. And surely this is only the first of such demonstrations.

While protesters block the bridge, the CEL is engaged in their own public relations activity in La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Yesterday afternoon, residents of La Canoa were surprised to see military trucks and the CEL at their small medical clinic setting up tents for a health brigade. This morning, the CEL and military are offering free medical services and medicines to locals. Though a lot of people are sick and in need of medicines following the flood, only a handful of people have taken advantage of the services.

According to a local health promoter, the president of the community board in La Canoa approved the clinic, but most residents do not want to be a part of what they perceive to be public relations campaign.

There are a couple things that are a little odd about the health brigade. One is that the military is present. Military units were deployed to the region to help with evacuations, so they do have an interest in the region, but according to locals their presence seems more intended to intimidate would-be CEL protestors than to help flood victims. And, if the CEL and Military really wanted to help flood victims they should be in Nueva Esperanza, Nuevo Amanecer, Ciudad Romero, or Zamorano – all five miles up the road from La Canoa. Perhaps the CEL asked these communities to host the event and they declined?

We will provide more information on the medical clinic and protests later in the day.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Flood Recovery update in the Lower Lempa

More than two weeks after El Salvador’s historic floods, victims continue the slow recovery process. As people clean their homes and live with very real public health issues, they are also planning how to protect themselves against future storms.

Days after the Lempa Rivera completely flooded communities along its banks in Usulután and San Vicente, we posted an article on the public health concerns residents would likely face when they returned home. We are very sad to report that this week an 18-year old male in Salinas del Potrero died when he contracted leptospirosis, a “rare and severe bacterial infection” that can occur when people are exposed to standing water in tropical regions. He most likely contracted the bacteria from water or food contaminated with urine from rats, cattle or other animals.

Other people are suffering from a wide variety of fungal infections, and according to our staff in the field, everyone they have talked to has a cold. The public health risks will remain a concern for the near future.

This week, the Funes Administration released their preliminary report on the flood damage – $840 million. The storm cost El Salvador $300 million in production alone, including the destruction of bean and corn crops, which would likely have yielded record harvests. El Salvador’s infrastructure sustained $260.58 million in damage, and there was another $207.8 million in damages to homes, schools, and health centers.

Residents of the Lower Lempa are still cleaning and trying to plan their next steps for recovery. Our field staff says that people continue hanging out clothes and personal belongings in the sun to dry, and that the entire region smells like a moldy swamp. Our staff also says that though our friends are as happy and hospitable as ever, they are definitely suffering.

Some farmers are debating whether to plant another crop of corn. Because the rainy season is all but over, they would be depending on the water in the soil to sustain the crop. They would be running the risk that the ground would dry up within the 2.5-month period until they could harvest. If the ground dried up, they would lose the $900 up-front investment they would have to make. If they were successful and harvested a crop, however, they would be able to get their family through the dry season with minimal support from aid programs.

People and organizations are also starting to talk a lot more about the CEL (the private corporation that manages El Salvador’s dams) and their management of the September 15th Hydroelectric Dam upriver. There is still insufficient information to determine whether they could have done more to protect communities in the Lower Lempa during the last storms, but groups are talking about the need for an audit of their performance.

An article in the La Prensa Grafica this week pointed to the tension between the CEL and the communities in the Lower Lempa. The CEL maximizes energy production and profits by maintaining high levels of water in the dam’s reservoir. The more water they have in the reservoir at the end of the rainy season, the more energy they can produce in the dry season. In the rainy season, the CEL can satisfy 59% of the nation’s energy needs, but that drops down to 20% in the dry season. The end of the rainy season is when there is the greatest threat of a large storm.

The CEL could make sure that the reservoir is empty going into the end of the rainy season when the threat of flooding is the greatest, minimizing the risk of flooding downriver. But this would mean that they run the risk of having no water in the reservoir dramatically decreasing energy production during the dry season when there are no rains. A full reservoir, on the other hand, means they can continue generating electricity and power into the dry season. It also means that if there is a large storm such as Tropical Storm 12-E, they have no choice but to release waters at a high rate, resulting in flooding.

As we have discussed in previous articles, many are blaming Tropical 12-E and the massive amounts of rain on climate change. This week the Archbishop of El Salvador echoed comments made by the Minister of the Environment and others, stating, “climate change is the most serious problem confronting humanity.” The Minister of the Environment said in the days after the flood that El Salvador needs to be a model for countries around the world in mitigating the impact of climate change – his statements seem to accept that climate change at this point is irreversible, and that they must figure out how to live with it.

Preparing for climate change, however, could be where the CEL and communities downstream from the September 15th Dam may find some common ground. The government has to repair or rebuild the levees in the Lower Lempa. The higher and stronger the levees, the more water the CEL can keep in their levees and the more energy they can produce without risking the communities downstream. Post Hurricane Mitch, the levees could withstand dam releases at no more than 2500 cubic meters per second. If the dams were built to withstand much more than that, the communities and CEL come out ahead.

Just this afternoon communities in the Lower Lempa are meeting to discuss their approach towards working with the CEL. As the communities, CEL representatives, and government officials move forward in planning for how to best deal with climate change, it is important to realize that if all of the parties work together, there is likely an outcome that benefits all stakeholders. We hope that those participating in the conversations can set aside their own short-term economic and political interests in service of collective long-term benefits.