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.

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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.

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.

 

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, 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.