Saturday, June 19, 2010

The vulnerable communities of the lower Lempa River

From the SHARE Foundation:

Movement of Rural Communities Affected by Flooding Demands Government Response

With Tropical Storm Agatha behind them, now able to asses damages and plan for the future, the Movement of Rural Communities Affected by Flooding held a press conference. Representatives of communities located near the lower Lempa, Grande, Jiboa and Paz rivers came together on this rainy, grey Friday morning at the CRIPDES National Office to make a number of concrete demands. These four rivers flooded during Hurricane Ida, and these communities have been among those arguably most affected by hurricanes, rains, flooding and landslides for decades. Representatives included SHARE counterparts CRIPDES San Vicente and ACUDESBAL, who work with communities on the western and eastern banks of the lower Lempa River, respectively.

The conference began as the representative of ACUDESBAL summarized the situation. Communites located in lower river basins in El Salvador and throughout the country, dependent on agriculture to survive, are unsure whether to plant. Those that didn't lose their crops in Agatha are hesitant to plant now, for fear of continued flooding with more rains on the way. Their livelihoods, though, depend on the year's corn, bean and sorghum harvest.

There is a high level of vulnerability in all communities in lower river basins because of lack of public works for the levee systems and drainage canals. In the Bajo Lempa, as in other major rivers with dams upstream, this situation is worsened by bad management of dam flood gates, thrown open without concern for communities downstream. During the worst of Tropical Storm Agatha, 6,000 cubic meters of water per second were discharged, while during the worst of Hurricane Mitch and Hurricane Ida, the maximum reached was 4,000 cubic meters per second.

Due to this massive amount of water rushing downstream, the levees, already in a serious state of disrepair, broke in eight places along the lower Lempa River, leaving the communities always in threat of flooding even more vulnerable. This, coupled with what is widely expected to be an extreme hurricane season, has planted fear in place of the corn seeds, washed away. Repairs to the broken levees demand heavy machinery, impossible to bring into a zone that resembles marshland when it rains heavily. So communities are forced to wait it out, saying their prayers and crossing their fingers until November.

Along with crossing their fingers, they have been organizing to demand that their government act. The press release presented included the following demands:

  • The immediate provision of food and supplies to the families most affected by flooding;
  • Urgent development of a disease-prevention and clean-up campaign;
  • An exhaustive investiagtion of damages, including agricultural losses, social infrastructure, levees, and drainage canals;
  • Rehabilitation and maintainence of the drainage system;
  • Repairs and reconstruction of damaged sections of the levees;
  • The establishment of a mechanism to regulate discharges of major dams, including sanctions for those who violate these new regulations.

When asked how the new government has responded to the second national emergency of its term, the response was clear. While communities recognize that Civil Protection's response to this most recent emergency was a significant improvement over the past and that coordination with various levels of government institutions has advanced, the damages caused by these disasters are preventable. The Movement of Rural Communities Affected by Flooding has struggled for over a decade for prevention and mitigation projects in high-risk zones; previous ARENA governments ignored their call, while the new Funes administration failed to respond in a timely manner. Had these projects been carried out, affected communities would not be suffering once again.

The press conference ended with a final call to the central government, as well as on the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Public Works, to focus efforts on prevention and mitigation projects and to minimize human and economic losses in future emergencies.



Much of the TV news coverage in El Salvador this week has focused on the plight of a neighborhood called Las Cañas in the Ilopango zone (San Salvador province or department). Rain waters have been gradually washing away a neighborhood atop a cliff, with several houses and the local cemetery slowly going over the cliff. Many other people live in precarious straits, including in the province of San Vicente, where many perished during a flood induced landslide last year. The government would do well to carry out a serious "vulnerability" survey and to develop action plans to head off tragedies in each of those areas, as well as reaction plans should the unthinkable come to pass. This could be a way to implement the "preferential option for the poor," which Archbishop Romero espoused, and President Funes has embraced, in the contingency planning and strategic thinking of the government.

Beth said...

There are vulnerability surveys. Lots of them. There are risk maps for nearly every municipality subjected to landslides made by COSUDE in 2004- including maps predicted landslides in Verapaz, Santiago Texacuangos, and Santo Tomas that no municipal government paid attention to. The UN's most recent April 2010 study fron UNDAC, which declares El Salvador one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, reference landslide, flooding, siesmic, and volcanic risk maps. There are lots of studies.
There are also lots of plans. Unfortunately, Civil Protection did not read the disaster plans before Ida.

Its not a a lack of studies and plans, its a lack of governance and funding. Civil Protection budget (managed by PROFOMIDE) is $4 million a year. that is a joke. municipalities have NO budget for disasters or environmental risk management.

Step 1 is not vulnerability studies, we have that. Step 1 is political will, and it starts with environmental zoning (ordenmiento territorial)...

check out or email me at if you want copies of my fulbright study, which looks at this very issue....