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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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.

 

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.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Photos from Flooded Nueva Esperanza

We were able to visit the community of Nueva Esperanza briefly this afternoon and snapped some photos of the damage.

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The water levels were very high and most everything is covered in mud. The cleanup will be a major undertaking and community members are still in the evacuation shelters.

We are still fundraising for the relief effort, which will be a long term effort. If you haven’t contributed yet, its not too late – please click on the Donate Now button to to the right of this post.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Public Health Concerns Following Flooding

As floodwaters continue to recede, communities throughout El Salvador are starting to consider the short and long-term impact of the 1400 milimeters (55 inches) of rain that has fallen in the past week. One of the most immediate issues is public health.

According to Eduardo Espinoza, Viceminister of Health, the most immediate public health concern in El Salvador is the 2,200 community wells contaminated by flooding, which threaten the availability of safe drinking water. The Health Ministry announced yesterday that it is distributing ‘Puriagua,’ a chlorine solution used to disinfect contaminated drinking water. Other organizations are also distributing chlorine-tablets and purified water. Although the wells pose a significant health concern, “the risk of outbreaks can be minimized” through prompt action to identify wells and provide clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Flooding can increase the risk of communicable diseases in a number of ways – contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal diseases; floodwater can bring disease-carrying animals such as dogs, rats or mosquitoes into closer contact with humans; direct contact with waste carried by floodwater can cause skin disease; and exposure to weather conditions can lead to respiratory ailments.

The most prevalent health concerns, so far, seem to be respiratory and skin problems, judging by the number of consultations at shelters nationwide. Out of 9,139 health consultations made by October 17th, 2,395 dealt with respiratory problems, primarily among the very young and the elderly. The Health Minister recommended that special care be taken to wrap these vulnerable groups warmly. Another 1,231 consultations dealt with skin problems. However, according to the World Health Organization, neither problem is “epidemic-prone.” 145 consultations dealt with gastrointestinal diseases and diarrhea.

Other “epidemic-prone” diseases are being monitored closely. The Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) has donated diagnostic kits to monitor the spread of H1N1, dengue, malaria, and a disease called leptospirosis carried by rodents and dogs. Espinoza reported five cases of chicken pox in the Municipality of Cojutepeque, which have been addressed with “isolation measures and antiviral treatment to contain the spread of the disease.” Espinoza also reported six cases of the H1N1 virus under isolation. “So far, there has been no case [of H1N1] in the shelters,” says Espinoza.

Another public health problem is that flooding has damaged 138 health establishments, according to the Health Ministry. As just one example, the PAHO reports that the infrastructure at the Kidney Health Unit in the Lower Lempa has been “completely damaged” by more than two meters of water, “losing the medical equipment vital to treat renal failure.” The organization writes, “This unit treats 350 patients with chronic renal failure, who, currently, have no other alternative.”

Dr. Anne Daul, a fellow with the the George Washington University department of Emergency Medicine, added that flood victims also need to be concerned about the psychological impact from loosing a home or even loved ones. She also warns that major catastrophes such as this can break down the social fabric, which puts women at risk of gender-based violence.

The international community, government officials and local partners must all work together in the coming weeks and months to minimize the impact of the flooding on the health of the people. It will be an issue that we at Voices will be monitoring closely.