JAY HARTLING*/ SAN SALVADOR
In the last 100 years, El Salvador has suffered at least 48 natural disasters. Because of its geographic location, rampant deforestation and exploitation, and lack of community planning, El Salvador is one of the most vulnerable countries on the globe.
On Tuesday, October 13, 2011 heavy rains hit the region from Guatemala to Costa Rica, and until day, there has been no reprieve. In terms of quantity of precipitation, El Salvador has been the hardest hit of all, with more rain falling in the country over the last nine days than occurred during the tragedy of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. In fact, this is the biggest rain storm in the history of El Salvador. Two days after the rains began, El Salvador’s government declared a National State of Emergency which has now evolved into a National State of Calamity. For the first time in history, everyone, from the President of the Republic on down, have publicly admitted that this is the real and tangible impact of climate change – caused by humans.
More than 52,000 people have either been removed from their homes, or have gone to temporary shelters, as their homes are inundated with water. Many people have simply refused to leave their homes because they fear theft of their few, hard-earned possessions left behind. It’s hard to believe there are organized groups in the country that would prey on the misfortune of so many. Shelters have been set up in 254 schools, where municipal and school volunteers staff the centres 24/7, taking in much needed donations of clothing, mattresses and blankets, food and medicines. Visiting a shelter in Quezaltepeque, a city about 45 minutes from San Salvador, volunteers have set up an orderly and well-guarded system. The national police and the army guard the entrance to the building to ensure the safety of those inside – many of whom are women and children. Those being admitted to the shelter must undergo a medical examination before being assigned to a dormitory style room with mattresses on the floor. Doctors treat the ever-present fungal infections, fevers, and look carefully for signs of dengue. A room is set up to house donations, and classrooms serve as dormitories. Classes have been suspended until October 24th so they can continue to provide much needed shelter, and to allow the Ministry of Education to determine the extent of damage to schools not serving as shelters (296 schools have been damaged). The Ministry of Education’s free hot lunch program that was introduced in 2009 is continuing so that those seeking shelter can receive a hot lunch every day.
The floods have had a severe impact on the local food supply. For the first time in years, El Salvador was set to meet or surpass the target for bean production, one of the most important food sources in Central America. 50% of that crop has been wiped out, as well as 45% of corn production, approximately half of El Salvador’s coffee production, and fruits and vegetables. As a result, imports will now increase, which means higher food prices for everyone, in an already inflated environment. The Consumer Protection Bureau is currently reviewing public markets and private supermarkets to ensure vendors are not speculating and falsely driving prices up – those caught speculating will be fined.
In terms of infrastructure, 4 main bridges have completely collapsed, 10 more are severely damaged, and several others remain under observation. The main problem is the over-saturation of the surface and sub-surface soil – particularly in areas that are severely deforested (which might describe most of the country). There is nothing left to anchor the soil, causing immense landslides of soil and trees. ANDA, the state water provider reports water sources are all contaminated by the heavy rains, forcing the institution to inject more bleach into the water system. Homes have been destroyed, and the saturation of water has caused tremendous damage to highways and roads.
Of course, international aid from various countries and organizations has begun to arrive (England, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Taiwan, US, etc). All aid is supposedly being organized and distributed by a new centralized system, however, the government has been criticized for being slow in reacting to the crisis. There are still many places that have been hard hit that have not been sent any aid. The law places responsibility for activating emergency response squarely with municipalities to ensure people at risk are identified and brought to safety, as well as the distribution of emergency donations. Yesterday, five municipalities (governed by the disintegrating right-wing ARENA party) were sanctioned for the first time ever by the government for NOT activating any emergency response whatsoever – those municipalities are located in the Departments of La Paz, Sonsonate and San Vicente. Private companies and NGOs are also collecting donations, and some are playing politics. For example, the ubiquitous Walmart claims to have provided tons of donations, when in fact, they have provided a box outside their store for Walmart shoppers to deposit their donations (bought at Walmart, of course – judging from the number of Walmart bags in the box).
Canadians have a history of generosity and quick response in times of need, and this time is no exception. The Vice presidential Commission for Social Action put out a call to a network of Canadians on Sunday evening, and by Wednesday morning had collected $1850 to provide rubber boots, blankets and medicine to heavily impacted communities such as El Milagro in Quezatepeque. While El Milagro is not one of the hardest hit communities, permanent sub-standard living conditions make the task of rebuilding lives just as difficult. Donations were coordinated by the FMLN Committee in Victoria, BC and a donor from Halifax – donations came from as far away as Victoria, Prince Rupert, Vancouver, Austin Texas, and Halifax/Dartmouth.
Now, the task of rebuilding this already devastated country begins. The Salvadorian government accepted a $50 million loan to rebuild infrastructure and address health issues from the Inter-American Development Bank. The question one has to ask is – then what? How does this tiny, poor, vulnerable country combat the permanent effects of climate change, for this is surely not the last storm we will see.
*Jay Hartling is an independent journalist and consultant based in San Salvador. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org