Deadly flooding in Central America: how people contributed to the tragedy

Hurricane Rina has formed off of the Caribbean coast of Central America as the region digs out from floods that killed more than 100 people. Guest blogger Tim Muth looks at the role that humans play in such tragedies.

Luis Galdamez/Reuters
A toy is seen on a road last week after a mudslide in the Ciudad Arce department of La Libertad, about 25 miles west of San Salvador, El Salvador. Torrential rain in Central America forced thousands to abandon their homes and trapped many.

The floods of this month in El Salvador were extraordinary. But when we look at the consequences of the floods, it is clear that calling this a "natural" disaster excuses too easily the role of humankind in contributing to the tragedy. There are several places where the actions or inactions of human beings had a role:

Global climate change. Weather scientists asked about the flooding rains of October opined that the rains were an example of the more extreme and variable weather events produced by global climate change. The charts I have posted in this blog showing rain totals of other weather events in El Salvador certainly seem to show that the past decade has been significantly worse than the preceding 40 years. The carbon emissions of an industrialized world have created an imbalance producing life-threatening weather events in ever-increasing frequency.

Structural poverty. 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. 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. You do not see the bank manager sitting in a school which has been converted into a shelter – you see the single mother with two children who sells trinkets on the side of the street.

These flood disasters which hit El Salvador on a regular basis disproportionately affect the poor because they can only afford to build their dwellings in places where they are at risk. So they end up living in the flood plains, along the gullies which can flash flood, and in communities where a mudslide can block access along the one unimproved road.

Salvadoran Catholic bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez has proclaimed that the disaster caused by the rains demonstrated "the economic vulnerability, that is to say the poverty so many of our countrymen live immersed within, the social vulnerability, characterized by the structural injustice and the ecological vulnerability, for which the great fault lies in the wild ambition that rages against God's creation, this house of all of us which is deteriorating more each day."

The role of hydroelectric projects. Some are certainly blaming the flooding of the Lower Lempa River on the dams built on the river and the periods of enormous water discharge through the September 15 dam. It's hard to know what would have happened if there were no dams on the river. Generating clean electric power is also important for the country as is the flood control on the river.

The failure to complete risk-mitigation projects. The areas where there were floods and landslides in El Salvador are all places known to be at risk, because they have flooded or collapsed before. In part, the fact that the risks are well understood contributed to a relatively low loss of life in these floods – communities could be evacuated because the coming dangers were foreseeable. But since these risks were foreseeable, why was so little done to eliminate the risks in the first place? I remember standing near the community of Puerto Parada in the summer of 2010 where flood waters from the Rio Grande de San Miguel had just about dried up. Someone pointed to where the levee along the river had burst to allow in the flood waters. In the past two weeks, I have seen the video of the water again flowing through Puerto Parada as the levee burst again. This same story is repeated in many areas in El Salvador. The government has not done enough to mitigate the foreseeable risks.


Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, replanting fields, and treating water borne illnesses will all be an important part of flood relief in the coming days, weeks, and months. But until the underlying structural problems are addressed and the risks are mitigated, I fear this tragedy will repeat itself. And with global climate change, the repeat event may come much sooner than El Salvador can ever afford.

--- Tim Muth covers the news and politics of El Salvador at his blog, Tim's El Salvador Blog.

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