Advocacy, Climate Change, El Salvador Government

Communities still demand reconstruction in the Lower Lempa

This is a translation of Contrapunto‘s February 13th note about our partners in the Lower Lempa.

By Gloria Morán

Photo: Luis Veláquez

San Salvador – It has been two months since the Salvadoran President, Mauricio Funes, promised to invest around 21 million dollars for the reconstruction efforts in the Lower Lempa.  Today, representatives from the region are denouncing the failure to fulfill this promise.

On December 19th Funes made this promise, just after the Lower Lempa had suffered the some of the worst impacts of Tropical Storm 12E in October 2011.  “The first priority is the recovery of the levees along the shores of the Lempa River; then the rehabilitation of the drainage ditches, and the construction of two permanent shelters that can provide security and hygiene should future evacuations prove necessary”, announced Funes to local residents in December.

At that moment the Salvadoran representative assumed, with authority, the reconstruction as part of the historic debt owed to the residents of the Lower Lempa, noting that they had discover drainage systems that hadn’t been maintained in over 30 years.

Of these promises, Gilberto Berríos of United Communities (ACUDESBAL), assured us that “of that promised, still nothing has been done”.  The residents of the Lower Lempa, above all, ask that the government repair and rebuild the damaged levees as quickly as possible.  They also demand that they begin the cleaning and rehabilitation of the drainage system and the reconstruction of the main roads that were washed out.  They also insist that the hydroelectric company, CEL, establishes a protocol for discharges so that the residents know when they will release the water, and how much.

They also request that the government create an integral plan to provide health, education, and basic services to the local population; not just reconstruction.  “What is happening now, since nothing is being repaired, is that we are preparing for another flood”, said Maritza Hernández, another representative from the Lower Lempa, who affirmed that time is their worst enemy.

José Acosta, representative in the Lower Lempa for the Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), expalined that the greatest worry of the communities is the imminent arrival of the rainy season [around May], and there has been no progress.  Berríos explained that they have seen the contractors who are responsible for the reconstruction in the region, but they have only cleaned-up and marked-off the areas where “we suppose they plan on doing some work, but this is insufficient”.

The representatives of the communities expressed that this is nothing new.  They have been waiting 13 years since Hurricane Mitch and the levees are still incomplete.

According to the surveys done by organizations in the region, 29 communities have been directly affected, of about 2,000 families. [in Jiquilisco]

In regards to the unfulfilled promises made by the president, the head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (PDDH), Oscar Luna, said that as an institution they are requesting the necessary measures so that the residents of the Lower Lempa and other communities receive the help they need in so far as rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Voices note:

The promises made on December 19th by President Funes were considerably more modest than those announced just 3 days after Tropical Storm 12E.  On October 20th, Funes flew into the offices of the Mangle Association in the Lower Lempa and declared that the government and the CEL hydroelectric company would build levees, clean the drainage system, build shelters and dredge the Lempa River.  He also emphasized the government’s interest in establishing the Lower Lempa as a key region for agricultural development in El Salvador, as well as the their commitment to an integral risk management policy.  On November 15th Funes reiterated these promises, even going on to explain that the CEL wanted to just repair a few of the levees, but he had ordered them to include all of the communities, especially along the Tecoluca side of the river. According to a delegation of German Engineers from 2003, it would cost about 400 million dollars to complete all levees, drains, and to dredge the river.  The 21 million that the CEL and the Salvadoran government finally signed off on is really just another band-aid on an increasingly compromised infrastructure.  If the contractors continue the ‘reconstruction’ effort at this pace, the effort will certainly be of little use in the Lower Lempa.

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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.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Corruption, Disasters

Rains continue, flood waters recede in the Lower Lempa

Today community members report renewed access to San Marcos Lempa via the ‘paved’ road.  Many sections are washed out or still covered with a few inches of water, but smaller vehicles are now able to enter the communities.

Families from less directly affected communities such as Amando López and Octavio Ortiz are anxious to return to their homes, but Voices staff and other authorities are urging them to stay while the rain still falls.  It has been raining without pause throughout the country since the early hours of this morning.

ACUDESBAL (the local inter-communal association) and CESTA (an environmental NGO) published a press release denouncing the role of the September 15th hydroelectric dam in the near total devestation of many communities in the Lower Lempa.  The release says “During this climatic phenomena, the CEL again released 11,500 cubic meters per second, but unlike Hurricane Mitch, this amount of water was released for a prolonged period of time, and the river bed is more clogged [than in ’98’], which caused flooding from San Marcos Lempa all the way down to Montecristo Island”.  The release demands that CEL accept responsibility for their negligence, especially after an interview with the CEL president Irving Tochez, where he claims that CEL is in no way responsible for the devestation, but rather mitigated further disaster by ‘helping to retain water and releasing it in a controlled manner’.

They end by stating ” the road to recovery will be extremely difficult, but we know we can count on the support and solidarity among the organized communities, here and abroad”.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams

Pictures of Evacuations and Shelters in Jiquilisco, Monday & Tuesday

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Advocacy, Disasters

Crisis in El Salvador! Please Help Now

The situation here in El Salvador has become truly critical in the past 24 hours.  The number of evacuated persons has risen to at least 13,878 and Civil Protection continues to call for more.  In the past 12 hours over 200 ml (approximately 8 inches) of rain fell nation wide, and the death toll has risen to at least 27 people.  Many roads are now impassable due to flooded rivers and creeks, as well as land slides.  Civil Protection has registered 590 land slides, 472 damaged or destroyed homes, and 998 homes in grave risk.

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We cannot stress enough the devastation that has occurred over the past 72 hours.  The entire country is on red alert, frantically trying to get basic necessities to shelters and communities around the country.

In the Lower Lempa the CEL is currently releasing 8000 cubic meters of water per second, levels not seen since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.  The levees are already seriously compromised and the Mayor  of Jiquilisco is calling for a complete evacuation of the Lower Lempa, as ordered by Civil Protection.  The Salvadoran Navy and Armed Forces has dispached boats and vehicles to help facilitate evacuations.

We at Voices are working with the Civil Protection Central Command out of Ciudad Romero. They have asked us, for right now, to provide support to the shelters in Amando Lopez and Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, which we are doing. This afternoon, Civil Protection is evacuating the Amando Lopez Shelter, which is at capacity. As the Rio Lempa continues to rise through the afternoon and into the evening, we expect that the numerous families that have so far not evacuated to make their way to the Amando Lopez shelter, and they will need our support. We will also continue assisting the evacuees as they move to the shelter in San Marcos. Right now we are focused on the basics: food, clothing, and shelter.

Again, if you have not donated for this emergency, we urge you to do so.  This weather is projected to last into the coming week, and any and all aid is urgent and necessary.  Also we have noticed that there is a lack of coverage in the international press – please help spread the word!

We are making a wire transfer to the communities tomorrow morning, so please help tonight by clicking on the Donate Now button to the right of this page. No amount is too small or big.

And please share this bolg post with your friends and Family on Facebook

agriculture, Climate Change, Disasters, Food Security

Tropical Storms and Small Farmers

Small producers in El Salvador are facing a grim agricultural season this summer.  Tropical Storm Agatha started off the rainy season with torrential rains that caused landslides and massive flooding along the coastal river basins.  Last week’s Hurricane Alex brought more rain that further saturated the soil of already vulnerable communities.

The outlook for the rest of the rainy season doesn’t bode well either.  Colorado State University, NOAA, and Climate Prediction Center (CPC) are predicting a very active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean with an average of 18 tropical storms between June 1st and November 30th.  These storms push ample amounts of rain and wind onto El Salvador, where 95% of the population is vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.

In a discussion with Voices on the Border’s partner community Octavio Ortiz, in the Lower Lempa, Jiquilisco we can begin to understand what this means for small subsistence farmers.

In Octavio Ortiz 60 of the 97 families farm their own land; an average of 5 acres per family.  Other community members work as day laborers, or in a handful of trade skills.  With the land overly saturated, landowners can’t count on their own harvest for their year’s supply of corn, and the day laborers have been without work.  The average pay is $4.00 for four or five hours of heavy manual labor.

Some families planted corn before Agatha and then lost it.  A few of those families decided to re-plant, only to lose that seed to Alex.  Very few farmers dare to try again, especially with the heaviest rains expected for July, September and October.  After Alex, the community reported a loss of about 66 acres of corn.  680 chickens also died.  No one had risked planting vegetables which are a much more expensive investment, so there was no need to report losses there.  Most of the fruit trees survived the storm, but about 15 families had hoped to plant mango, cocoa, and lemon trees.  They’re having trouble finding land where the young saplings won’t rot before they take hold.

Swampy fields also impact the backbone of the community’s economy – cattle.  Traditionally the rainy season is ideal for abundant pasture and local cows can thrive.  This year’s pastures are either still flooded or have become de facto swamps.  One woman said that before the storms her seven cows were producing 35 bottles of milk every day.  Now they are only able to produce between 10 or 12 bottles.  That means she has gone from earning about $14 dollars a week to just $4 dollars.

Efforts to aid the community have been piecemeal.  The mayor donated small packets of food last month.  This weekend the Red Cross donated more food aid packages that will last families at least a month or two.  Other associations and NGO’s have distributed aid to their corresponding sectors.  The Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle has collected the reported losses from the community and is offering rice and sorghum seeds come August.  They are also selling chickens at very reduced prices ($18 for 50 chicks).

The reality of the situation is that this community and others like it will have to find alternative ways to feed their families for the remainder of the year.  When conditions are favorable, farmers can produce one more harvest after the rainy season thanks to the lingering humidity in the soil.  After that, only those with access to irrigation will be able to produce a harvest during the dry season.

Several local associations such as ACUDESBAL and ADIBAL have begun pilot projects with small groups sharing portable irrigation systems in an effort to confront climate change and create more resilient communities.  However, local farmers are hesitant to try their hand at the new systems.  For many, rain has always determined the growing season, and intensive farming requires a greater commitment in time, energy and maintenance.  Just consider that to buy the few gallons of gasoline that the pump requires per week, the farmer has to travel by bus with his or her gas can to the closest gas station 12 miles away.  Initiatives such as these require time and patience.  The experiences of those participating in the pilot project serve to convince neighbors and friends over time.  Typically, communities begin to reproduce these kinds of initiatives on their own after three years.  But – with weather patterns being anything but typical, farmers could embrace such alternatives more quickly.  It may be the safest card they have left to play.

Advocacy, Disasters

More Advocacy, More Floods

The communities of El Salvador’s four river basins continue to struggle to be heard at a national level. Recent TV and newspaper interviews express their frustrations with federal entities and representatives.

The national budget goes before the Legislative Assembly next month, with no concrete proposals for the communities left vulnerable to flooding year after year. Despite an aggressive campaign to allot resources for levees and drains in the nation’s four coastal river basins, neither the Legislative Assembly nor the Ministry of Cattle and Agriculture have taken the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of these communities.

The grass-roots initiative for such resources began advocating in the Legislative Assembly this year after the Ministry of Cattle and Agriculture refused to heed their complaints. The Ministry said they would only continue piece-meal repairs of existing levees due to lack of resources. They also refused to produce reports of past accounts, such as the 2006 FOPROMID 4 million dollar fund for emergency response and infrastructure, money donated by foreign governments after Hurricane Stan.

At the Legislative Assembly, the communities were well received by representatives from all of the major political parties, but were unable to move forward with a concrete proposal. The Ministry of Agriculture is the entity responsible for presenting any projects, while the Legislative Assembly is only able to suggest and/or approve the proposals.

Therefore, the organizations are back at the table, working on a new demand for the Assembly and the Ministry. The piece asks the Ministry of Agriculture for explanations as to why they refuse to include comprehensive projects in their annual budget. And since it is the government’s responsibility to protect these communities, they also demand retribution for lost crops as a means to reactivate the region’s agriculture.

Meanwhile, the families of all four river basins are struggling through a second bout of flooding this year and the further degradation of the few existing levees left to protect them.