Salvadoran Rural Communities Face Climate Injustice

Luis Aviles, standing on a segment of the rock embankment that protects riverbank communities from the overflow of the Lempa River in southern El Salvador, points to the part of the river that makes a turn in its course and hits the levee hard, undermining it. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS - This situation falls under the category of climate justice or, actually, climate injustice: vulnerable groups are more heavily impacted by extreme weather events fomented by others, whether at the national or global level.
Luis Aviles, standing on a segment of the rock embankment that protects riverbank communities from the overflow of the Lempa River in southern El Salvador, points to the part of the river that makes a turn in its course and hits the levee hard, undermining it. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS
  • by Edgardo Ayala (tecoluca, el salvador)
  • Inter Press Service

Dozens of communities located in the Bajo Lempa area in southern El Salvador suffer year after year from flooding during the May to November rainy season, when the river overflows its banks and floods corn, beans, and other crops, as well as affecting fishing and other livelihoods.

The ecoregion is the lower stretch of the Lempa River basin, which runs through three Central American countries: it originates in Guatemala, crosses part of Honduras, and then enters El Salvador, where it meanders from the north until flowing into the Pacific Ocean in the south of the country.

The Lempa River basin covers 18,240 square kilometers, shared with Honduras (30 percent) and Guatemala (14 percent). In El Salvador, it stretches across slightly more than half of the territory of just over 21,000 square kilometers.

An estimated 5,000 families live in the 900-square-kilometer Bajo Lempa area. They are dedicated to subsistence farming and fishing and non-intensive cattle ranching, although there are also some families from other regions of the country, with more money, who have acquired land to grow sugar cane.

"In the 32 years that I have lived here, I have been affected just like the rest by many floods," Celina Menjívar told IPS. She is a farmer in San Bartolo, one of the settlements or communities of Bajo Lempa.

"I plant corn, sesame, and cushaw squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma) on a small family plot, but when the floods come, everything is lost, and in the end we are left with nothing," said Menjívar, 41.

In addition to subsistence farming, a group of some 50 families set up a cooperative for the organic production of cashew nuts, which they were able to export to the United States, France, and the United Kingdom after achieving certification as organic producers.

But rising production costs and competition from cheaper prices, especially from India, have hampered exports in the last two years. The cooperative is therefore looking to promote new products, such as pistachios and peanuts.

"We have made an effort to ensure that the farmers can at least sell their cashew seeds" on the domestic market, the cooperative's administrative coordinator, Brenda Cerén, told IPS.

Impact on the Most Vulnerable

Most of the residents of Bajo Lempa were part of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas, who settled on the riverbanks after receiving land in the region as part of the demobilization process at the end of the civil war in 1992.

El Salvador's bloody civil war (1980–1992) left some 75,000 people dead and 8,000 missing in a country that currently has 7.6 million inhabitants.

"Most of the flooding is not due to the rains per se, but to the discharges from the reservoir," said Menjívar, referring to the state-owned 15 de Septiembre hydroelectric plant, the country's largest, located upstream between the departments of San Vicente and Usulután, in central El Salvador.

Another resident of San Bartolo, Manuel Mejía, added: "When there are floods here, everything is lost: crops, livestock, even household goods, everything."

Mejía, a 77-year-old former guerrilla fighter, told IPS that this year's rainy season did not produce flooding because the storms began late, and this meant that the drainage channels, located along the road leading to the area, did not fill up and were able to handle the rainfall at the end of the rainy season in November.

Increasingly unpredictable and extreme rainfall periods, due to climate change, generate intense storms in short periods of time, and, as a consequence, the reservoir's capacity is easily exceeded and water releases are authorized.

Hence, the poor families of Bajo Lempa pay the cost of the dam's ability to generate electricity for other parts of the country, including those that generate the most income, such as industrial groups and real estate consortiums, whose business activities are among those that have the greatest impact on the environment.

This situation falls under the category of climate justice, or, actually, climate injustice: vulnerable groups are more heavily impacted by extreme weather events fomented by others, whether at the national or global level.

"Certainly there is climate injustice: richer people or sectors of the country, who live in urban areas, benefit more from energy, while poor families, who live on the banks of the rivers, take the hit," environmentalist Ricardo Navarro, director of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology, told IPS.

The Center is a local affiliate of the international NGO Friends of the Earth.

A light rain that falls for two or three days generates releases from the dam and the overflowing of the Lempa River, which floods the settlements. But of course, the most tragic floods have been caused by tropical storms or hurricanes, such as Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.

Mitch, a category 5 hurricane, the most lethal, caused such heavy rains that the hydroelectric dam filled in a matter of 36 hours and went from discharging 500 cubic meters per second to 11,500 cubic meters per second, according to a study on flooding in the Lower Lempa.

"During Mitch, I lost 40 heads of cattle; they drowned," Luis Avilés, a farmer from the Taura community, told IPS.

"Where we live is like living with a chronic illness; year after year we have this anxiety: wondering whether it will flood a lot this year, if I'll lose my crops, not knowing whether to plant or not," said Avilés, 53.

Embankment on the Verge of Collapse

A crucial issue in the impact of the floods is the damage that has been suffered over the years to the levee built with Japanese aid funds years ago and which has not been repaired since then, residents of Bajo Lempa told IPS.

The elevation made of different materials on the river bank to contain the overflowing waters runs 18 kilometers along the right bank of the river, from the Cañada Arenera community, in the municipality of San Nicolás Lempa, to the community of La Pita, near the river's mouth.

"We are in the most vulnerable area of the riverbank, the one that receives the strongest impact of the Lempa, because up there it makes a turn and then it flows down with force," said Avilés, standing on the damaged infrastructure: a wall of rocks tied together with wire, about four meters higher than the level of the river.

This segment of the five-kilometer-long levee is indeed the most damaged; the flow of the river has been undermining the base of the wall more and more.

"This wall protects the communities of Santa Marta, San Bartolo, Rancho Grande, Taura, Puerto Nuevo, Naranjo, and La Pita, and if it were to collapse, it would be a great tragedy," said Avilés, also a former guerrilla fighter.

The deterioration of the stone embankment is clearly visible along its five-kilometer length.

The rest of the dike is not a stone wall but an earthen elevation about two meters high, and it is also damaged.

The repair and maintenance of the embankment is one of the main demands of the inhabitants of Bajo Lempa, but it has never been efficiently addressed by any of the past governments.

Compensation for Damage

Avilés said it is obvious that the country needs to generate electricity "because many sectors, factories, industry, and homes depend on it, but we should also consider the cost that we pay down here," referring to the energy produced by the 15 de Septiembre power plant.

This dam and the other four in the country are managed by the state-owned Comisión Ejecutiva Hidroeléctrica del Río Lempa (CEL). For this reason, he and the other people interviewed argued that the government should take responsibility for the damage and losses caused to the families of Bajo Lempa and create an indemnity or compensation fund.

Avilés said that last year, when there was light flooding, he lost his crop of plantains or cooking bananas, which he had planted on a two-hectare plot. He went to claim compensation from CEL for the 15,000 dollars he had invested.

"They told me that they had nothing to do with it, that the dam was above us and the flooding was below," he said.

Environmental activist Gabriel Labrador, of the NGO Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UES), told IPS that these families have every right to demand an economic compensation fund for losses and damage.

"It is an injustice—the discharges, the vulnerabilities to which people and territories are exposed—which is a systematic practice that is unjust and ends up burdening the most disadvantaged people with more damage and losses," he said.

Meanwhile, the residents of Bajo Lempa, already accustomed to the floods, know that they have no choice but to continue fighting, despite the adversities.

"It would be fair for CEL to say, 'We are going to help you, at least with 50 percent of what was lost', but it doesn't give anything. However, we have no choice but to keep working hard," said Menjívar.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service