Monday, May 24, 2010

Community Organizing and Local Advocacy for Disaster Prevention: Inagurating Prevention and Mitigation Projects in the Bajo Lempa

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch ravaged El Salvador, claiming hundreds of lives, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of families and destroying homes, bridges, roads, crops and cattle. Mitch hit the Lower Lempa region especially hard. Seventeen communities in the Lower Lempa region were completely evacuated and devastated; Mitch made the vulnerability of the zone, felt by inhabitants since repopulation began at the end of the war, painfully clear. After Mitch, organization and advocacy in the region got stronger as people came together to demand prevention and mitigation projects. Private companies were contracted by the government to repair levees damaged by the floods, but while they made incredible profits, the companies hired did shoddy work.

Twelve years later, the national government finally responded to the pressure of these communities. On April 29, representatives from the Department of Public Works (MOP), the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), the Mayor of Tecoluca, CRIPDES San Vicente and ACUDESBAL—both long-time counterparts of SHARE, representing the Tecoluca (West) and Jiquilisco (East) sides of the river, respectively—and hundreds of community members gathered to inaugurate a series of prevention and mitigation project along the banks of and in communities surrounding the Lempa River.

The MOP and MAG have been in dialogue with CRIPDES San Vicente and ACUDESBAL about how best to carry out this project. The communities have put in the work to clear off the levees, overgrown with vegetation and worn away by years of neglect, and cut down the trees that threatened to fall and do further damage, the intense physical labor to pave the way for mechanized, professional work to be done by the MAG and MOP. This volunteer work was organized among affected communities, each responsible for an amount of work proportional to their population. Community councils divided the work among the men, women and children of the community, organizing work days to clear away their only defense from the rushing Lempa.

Flooding in the Lower Lempa region, a perennial problem, is affected greatly by the pollution, garbage and run-off that fill the Lempa River upstream. Thanks to deforestation, rain washes earth into the river and, in many places, the Lempa is much shallower than it used to be, crossable in some points on foot. During heavy rains, there is nowhere for the excess water to go but over the banks and into communities. This is worsened by bad management of the dams, which are thrown open to allow excess water upstream to flow down and flood the Lower Lempa.

As we stood on one of the sections of the levee to be repaired and reinforced, the Mayor of Tecoluca spoke about the importance of the project. “Without organization,” he states, “this wouldn’t have been possible, wouldn’t have been achieved. What has been done until today is thanks to the work of the communities, of men, women, and children to care for the levees.” He warms that vigilance of the coming work is very important, as private companies will be contracted.

This prevention and mitigation project, which, with rainy season only weeks away and the work scheduled to take six months is certainly getting a late start, will include the construction of one kilometer of new levee; repairs, reconstruction and reinforcement of levees all along the east and west banks of the Lower Lempa river, which includes heightening and widening many of the existing levees, a total of 24 kilometers of levees in Tecoluca and 27.5 in Jiquilisco; the construction of eight cattle crossings so cattle can drink from the river and use the grazing land along the river’s banks; and the cleaning of 18 kilometers of drainage canals that run through the zone, many of which are completely grown over with trees and brush. Rehabilitation of these drainage canals is vital, because even when the river itself doesn’t flood, a few days of heavy rains can flood communities as the water accumulates and has nowhere to go. The MAG will respond for all work relating to the levees and the MOP will work on the drainage canals, all work that requires heavy machinery and technical expertise.

After the photo opp at the levee 15 minutes outside of San Carlos Lempa, the 200 community members, activists and government representatives returned toCRIPDES San Vicente’s offices for more in-depth presentations and Q&A that lasted the rest of the morning. Presentations included more specific, technical information about the planned work, the timeline, and numbers detailing how much each department will invest. Marcos Machorta (right) from San Bartolo, on the Jiquilisco side of the river, spoke in representation of all communities affected by flooding: “our dreams of living a little more securely.”

Although the work is yet to be done, this is a significant step forward for the thousands of people that have fought since returning to El Salvador in the early 90s for a safe, secure place to live, a place where each new storm doesn´t threaten to flood communities or put their homes in the path of the Lempa River.

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