The tragedy of this week's floods and landslides is not just a natural disaster. It's a man-made disaster as poverty and marginalization lead people to build homes in at-risk areas and the government has failed for years to invest in risk mitigation projects. A recent article from IPS makes the point:
In a nationally broadcast address Sunday night, Funes said "the drama we are experiencing is the product of the precarious conditions in large swathes of the country due to the lack of buffer zones and risk prevention efforts, which have been demanded for years but were never made," said Funes, referring to 20 years of government by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).
Funes, who took office in June, is the first leftist president in the history of El Salvador.
"This is a story that repeats itself every winter. But there has to be an end to this, once and for all," said the president, who declared a national emergency to mobilise state resources to assist the victims of the flooding and landslides and begin reconstruction work.
Environmentalist Ángel Ibarra, president of the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Ecological Unit, or UNES), cited a World Bank study which estimates that 90 percent of the population lives in areas at high relative risk of death from two or more natural hazards.
But Ibarra said the problem of natural disasters is magnified in the country because of the serious environmental deterioration on one hand, and the lack of policies to pull people out of poverty and social exclusion on the other.
Most of the victims of catastrophes like flooding and mudslides are poor people who live in shacks in dangerous areas along riverbanks or hillsides.
He also told IPS that El Salvador lacks adequate disaster prevention and preparedness policies. "When these problems happen, it's always as if it were the first time. We have a 'picking up the dead' policy. We only react after something happens."
So although El Salvador, located on the earthquake-prone Ring of Fire and in the path of hurricanes, frequently suffers natural disasters, followed up by reports calling for an improved early warning system and other prevention measures, the system rarely functions when it is needed.
"We also suffer from socio-environmental and institutional vulnerability," added Ibarra, pointing to the dearth of coordination between the different state agencies. (more)