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Deficient disaster prevention proves deadly
Edgardo Ayala
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Fatal outcomes follow poor planning and alert systems in natural disaster-prone nation.

The morning of Nov. 8, torrential rains soaked central El Salvador. In just four hours 355 millimeters (14 inches) of rain fell on the area around the San Vicente volcano. When Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, it dumped 400 millimeters of rain on the region in four days.

The deadliest storm to hit the country since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, 198 people died, either drowned or buried in avalanches, according to official figures. Seventy-seven others are still missing, and 5,759 people were left homeless and living in shelters.

The damage, which included the destruction of 132 roads, 47 bridges and tens of thousands of acres of crops, totaled US$1 billion, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.

The rains slammed into El Salvador as Hurricane Ida made its way north through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico before weakening.

"Only a few were saved," said Juan Molina, 16, who survived a mudslide that devastated his village of Guadalupe, on the slopes of the San Vicente volcano. Villagers in Verapaz, in the same area, suffered a similar fate.

Lessons unlearned
El Salvador is prone to natural disasters, but some warn that its environmental and socioeconomic vulnerability is partly man-made because the country lacks an early warning system for such events, which could have saved lives in November´s deadly landslides.

The country has had plenty of reason to implement such a system.

In 1982, an avalanche from the San Salvador volcano buried the entire town of Montebello, killing some 500 people.

In 2001, two earthquakes struck in January and February southwest of San Salvador, causing landslides that left 1,259 people dead.

Hurricane Mitch in 1998 left 240 people dead in El Salvador and caused $261 million worth of damage.

A report by the Permanent Forum for Risk Management a citizen´s group said that 75 percent of Salvadoran territory is at risk for some sort of natural disaster.

"In the past 20 years, El Salvador has registered 12 large-scale disasters that have caused 4,332 deaths ... and $3.95 billion in damage," said the report, released in May. "The worst affected population has been women and girls, because of their conditions of vulnerability."

But despite studying natural disasters, their patterns and effects, as well as civil defense legislations, the nation falls short in protecting the most vulnerable populations, as the November floods showed.

The early alert system, which supposedly warns residents of the threat of avalanches, landslides, floods and other effects of torrential rains in high-risk areas, such as the slopes of San Vicente, had failed.

"These problems hit us as if it were the first time," said environmental activist Ángel Ibarra, of the Ecological Unit of El Salvador, a nongovernmental organization. "Here we have a policy of ´clean up the dead.´ We don´t react until things happen."

Vulnerability and climate change
Poor families often live in high-risk areas, such as along riverbanks, hillsides or on the slopes of volcanoes, where landslides and floods often hit.

Deforestation also plays a role in increasing the country´s risk. El Salvador is the second most deforested country in Latin America after Haiti. Original forests here cover less than 3 percent of the national territory, while coffee farms cover 9 percent. In a 2005 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that nearly 94 percent of El Salvador´s soils are considerably degraded.

Corporate interests have put the country in a permanent risk situation, worse than other nations with more environmental regulation, said Ricardo Navarro, director of the Centro de Tecnología Apropiada.

"Economic factors determine everything, not social or ecological ones," he said. "It´s something difficult to believe: they chop down trees to build golf courses in the second-most deforested country in the region."

During the 20 years of neo-liberal governments run by the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party, which ended in the March elections, the politically and economically powerful sectors used their government contacts for construction permits for projects that added to the country´s natural risks.

But the country´s newly elected first leftist government – the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – is not doing enough to stop this practice, by halting large-scale construction projects such as hydroelectric dams, Navarro said.

President Mauricio Funes rejected a request by environmental groups to halt construction on El Chaparral, a $220 million-hydroelectric project on the Torola River, in the eastern San Miguel department. While Funes defended the project saying the country needed to generate more energy, nearby residents complained that the dam would flood their land.

Environment Minister Herman Rosa Chávez blames climate change for the natural disasters.

The November floods and landslides "show that we are before new phenomena that we will surely continue to have," he said.

"This is related to the climate change phenomenon and we are going to have to learn to live with it," said Rosa Chávez.

But Navarro warned that the combination of climate change with government policies, have both created this situation of vulnerability, and said there will be "most dramatic" climatological events and aftermath in the “near future."
—Latinamerica Press.


A proper early alert system could have avoided many deaths in Verapaz landslides, experts said. (Photo: Juan José Dalton)
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