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Vicki Gass

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Rebuilding El Salvador Sustainably

Posted: 11/11/11 03:54 PM ET

International and national officials in El Salvador are calling it one of the worst crises in the country's history. What was more terrible than the civil war of the 1980s that claimed over 70,000 lives and even worse than Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged the region in 1998? It was Tropical Depression 12-E, a storm that dropped more than five feet of water over ten days in October, causing massive flooding and mud slides and forcing 60,000 people into shelters.

Perhaps the nondescript name did little to draw international attention to the crisis, but the economic damage wrought by the tropical deluge is worthy of an international response. Although fewer lives were lost (34 versus 10,000 people in Hurricane Mitch) as a result of the early warning system established post-Mitch, authorities estimate over $840 million in economic loss, affecting 181 municipalities in all 14 departments in the country. The nation's infrastructure was left in ruins; 40 percent of the road network, 23 bridges, 500 schools, and hundreds of houses were destroyed. The most affected sector was agriculture, which constitutes 11 percent of GDP and employs 30 percent of the population. Over 270,000 producers (mostly small-scale farmers) suffered damage to their grains and cereal crops -- staples of the Salvadoran diet, with immediate and long-term food insecurity likely.

The Funes government is estimating that it will cost $1.5 billion to build back El Salvador. It is precisely the extent of the damage to the country's infrastructure and agriculture sector that has Salvadorans calling this the worst disaster in El Salvador's history. With limited financial resources with which to rebuild, El Salvador will have to look abroad for assistance. While defined as a middle-income country, it still boasts high levels of poverty, especially in the rural sector. The lack of employment opportunities is one reason why Salvadorans risk coming to the United States to take menial jobs to send money back to their families (for more, see here).

Clearly this is not the first disaster to hit El Salvador, but there is legitimate fear that there is more to come. The United Nations considers Central America one of the world regions most affected by climate change; over the past 40 years, natural disasters have killed some 50,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Officials in El Salvador are attributing the recent deluge to climate change. Raul Artiga of the Central American Commission on Environment and Development has stated that "Climate change is not something that is coming in the future; we are already suffering its effects."

Minister of the Environment Herman Rosa Chávez is calling for a reconstruction process in El Salvador that takes climate change into account, in order to mitigate the effects of future disasters and prevent the waste of limited financial resources. One way of doing this is investing in sustainable rural agriculture. Studies have shown that investing in small-scale, sustainable agriculture increases a country's resilience to extreme weather events, strengthens food security, and contributes to economic development in the rural sector. A decent job, food for the kids, and reduced threats from future natural disasters are powerful anchors to keep people from becoming climate refugees.

A bipartisan congressional delegation from the United States will travel to El Salvador at the end of this week. One could hope that witnessing the devastation first-hand would increase U.S. emergency assistance and reconstruction aid to help the country rebuild. This is unlikely given the weak appetite for foreign aid in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the context of ongoing debates on budget cuts on both sides of the aisle. However, in December international bilateral and multilateral donors will gather to coordinate their responses to the disaster. The donors should heed Minister Chávez's call by directing their contributions to the rural sector and investing in sustainable agriculture to strengthen resilience against future disasters.