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Billion-Dollar Deluge Socks El Salvador

January 7, 2012

Tropical deluge '12-E' caused widespread damage in October, 2011 (YouTube)

The devastating tropical depression that pounded Central America for 10 days last month won’t go down as the deadliest act of Mother Nature to strike disaster prone El Salvador. But when it’s all said and done, tropical storm 12-E, as it was officially called, is likely to be one of the costliest.

The massive storm rolled in off the Pacific on Oct. 9 and, over the next week-and-a-half, caused massive flooding and killed more than 100 along the isthmus. Hardest hit was El Salvador, where 34 people died – mostly from mudslides. Flooding also destroyed crops, washed out bridges and roads, and damaged thousands of homes, directly affecting some 300,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes estimates that total losses from the deadly storm could reach US$1.5 billion dollars, or 5% of GDP. “The damages and losses from this phenomenon vary from country to country, but in the case of El Salvador, this is the worst disaster in recent years,” Funes told his Central American counterparts during a ‘mini summit’ held Oct. 25 in San Salvador. Also in attendance were Presidents Álvaro Colom of Guatemala, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and Porfirio Lobo from Honduras.

El Salvador has seen its share of deadly storms before. In 1998 a monstrous hurricane called Mitch tore its way through Central America killing more than 10,000 people. Compared to some of its neighbors, El Salvador fared relatively well in that storm. Still, Mitch killed more than 200 Salvadorans and, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), caused an estimated US$262 million in damages in the tiny country.

Six years ago more than 1,600 Central Americans were killed by another major hurricane, Stan, which caused nearly US$4 billion worth of damage across the isthmus. Hardest hit was Guatemala. In El Salvador, the storm killed roughly 70 people and caused approximately US$112 million in damages.

If President Funes’ damages estimate is accurate, 12-E could end up costing the country far more than Mitch and Stan combined. That’s because while the tropical depression may not have delivered hurricane-force winds, it lingered longer – and dumped even more rain – than did Mitch or Stan. Mitch, the previous record holder, delivered an accumulated 34 inches (nearly three feet) of rainwater. 12-E nearly doubled that, dropping 60 inches over the course of a week-and-a-half, according to Herman Rosa Chavez, El Salvador’ minister of the environment.

“As of now we’ve estimated at US$650 million the total losses in terms of direct damages suffered. This corresponds more or less to about 3% of GDP,” said President Funes. “However, it’s still premature to offer an exact figure. Once we’ve counted all the indirect damage – in terms of infrastructure and production – this amount could rise to between 4% and 5% of GDP, which would put it in line with the first damage estimates put forth by the United Nations.”

Food supply and health risks

Of particular concern is the affect the flooding had on crops. By some estimates, the rains destroyed 40% of El Salvador’s harvest. That includes valuable export crops like coffee as well as vital domestic crops like corn and beans. Already the losses have caused prices for those basic items to rise significantly. Over the coming months that will mean extra costs for those who can afford it, and hunger for those who cannot.

“Before it started raining the prices were lower,” Francisco Orti, a market vendor in San Salvador, told the BBC. “I would buy corn for US$14 per 100kg. Now it costs US$25. Yes, prices have gone up.”

Authorities are also apprehensive about public hygiene. More than 50,000 Salvadorans are still packed in emergency shelters. And, as ironic as it may sound considering the more than five feet of rain the country just received, fresh water is lacking in some areas. El Salvador’s Ministerio de Salud (MINSAL) reports that the flooding destroyed more than 1,800 wells and damaged and/or polluted 8,300 others. The rains also destroyed nearly 7,000 outdoor toilets and flooded some 22,000 others, mostly in rural areas.

“This is a complicated situation that ought to be a priority in order to prevent the outbreak of diseases in the areas that lost wells and where people don’t have anywhere to deposit their human waste,” said Eduardo Espinoza, MINSAL’s vice minister.

Some money has come in from international donors. The UN promised to come up with US$15.7 million to help fund immediate relief efforts. The US government donated US$50,000 to help El Salvador’s emergency services cover fuel costs. And Taiwan and Spain have each sent aid as well, US$300,000 and US$500,000 respectively.

The Salvadoran government is no doubt hoping First Lady Vanda Pignato’s trip to New York City last week will attract additional aid. The Brazilian-born Pignato, who also serves as El Salvador’s secretary for social inclusion, met personally with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and with former US President Bill Clinton, who heads a charity organization called the William J. Clinton Foundation.

But even a hefty donation by the former US president isn’t likely to meet all of El Salvador’s post-storm needs. Nor will it do much to mitigate the country’s permanent vulnerability to natural disasters of this kind. 12-E, after all, may be the costliest recent disaster in El Salvador, but it is by no means an isolated case. Nor will it be the last act of Mother Nature compelling Salvadoran authorities, hat-in-hand, to once again turn to the international community for help.

“The mayor of San Julián said something very revealing this week: ‘the world stopped noticing how screwed we are.’ What’s certain about this situation is that it’s very recurrent. The countries that tend to help us are sick of doing so,” columnist Marvin Aguilar wrote in a recent issue of La Página.

A question of vulnerability

ECLAC estimates that between 1998 and 2008, nearly a quarter of Latin America’s natural disaster-related deaths occurred in Central America, which is home to just 7% of the region’s population. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, in fact, are among the world’s top 10 most vulnerable countries, according to ECLAC.

Part of the problem is geography. An isthmus that delicately divides two off the world’s great oceans, the area is prone to large tropical storms – from both sides. El Salvador and its neighbors are also highly seismic countries. Dotted with volcanoes, they experience frequent – and sometimes deadly – earthquakes.

Climate change scientists predict that rising global temperatures will make Central America more vulnerable still. For many observers, last month’s 12-E is evidence that global weather patterns are already shifting. Calling the deluge “unprecedented,” Environment Minister Herman Rosa Chavez said El Salvador “marks a point where climate change is erupting.”

But El Salvador’s vulnerability isn’t purely a matter of being in the wrong place or, as climate scientists would suggest, the wrong time. When it comes to natural disasters, a country’s relative level of development matters too – a lot. Last year’s earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are a case in point. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, killed some 200,000 people. Only 500 people died in Chile, which suffered a much stronger quake (8.8 on the Richter scale) but whose homes and buildings were better able to resist the seismic waves. Chile is Latin America’s second wealthiest countries in terms of per capita GDP, according to the World Bank.

“In the pictures from the flooding in El Salvador and the rest of Central America, you do not see any photos of the homes of the middle and upper classes — you see champas of scrap wood and corrugated tin,” noted Tim Muth, an El Salvador-based blogger. “You do not see manicured lawns under water — you see the tiny milpas of the campesino farmer.   You do not see a submerged Lexus — you see the water flowing over an ox cart.”

As Muth pointed out, 12-E delivered its biggest blow to the country’s poorest, both in terms of immediate impacts, such as mudslides and flashfloods, and longer-term effects, such as rising food prices and disease outbreak. The flooded outhouses and contaminated wells are problems that disproportionally affect the rural poor. The homes swallowed up by killer mudslides tend not to be the mansions of the rich, but rather the preciously-constructed shacks of the poor who had nowhere else to build.

El Salvador “hasn’t paid close enough attention to the issue of vulnerability,” Ricardo Navarro, director of an environmental NGO called the Centro de Centro de Tecnología Apropiada (CESTA), told the AFP. “We get heavy rains, hurricanes, sometimes earthquakes. They cause damage, and when that happens, we go back to talking about vulnerability. But this needs to be a government policy, to figure out what we can do to make sure these events don’t cause us such misery.”

(This article originally appeared Nov. 3, 2011 in LADB)

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