Building Resilience in El Salvador through Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategies


El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Latin America and also one of the most vulnerable in the world. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) 88% of its territory and 95% of its population are exposed to hydro-meteorological or geophysical hazards.

In order to reduce this vulnerability, the Salvadoran Red Cross is carrying out the tenth edition of a programme that aims to strengthen resilience and food security in 20 communities in the municipalities of Berlín, Alegría, Mercedes Umaña and Santiago de María, in the highlands of the eastern department of Usulután.

The project “Building Resilience in El Salvador through Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Strategies, with Emphasis on Livelihood Protection and Safe Access Approaches” is led by a multidisciplinary team from the Salvadoran Red Cross, with technical and financial support from the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO), the Spanish Red Cross and the Norwegian Red Cross.


The department of Usulután has a population of 374,915 according to estimates by the General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The Red Cross project aims to reach 31,812 people by working with national and municipal civil protection teams, community leaders, and the health and education authorities. The high levels of poverty in the region are attributed to a multiplicity of factors such as the particularly bloody nature in Usulután of the Salvadoran civil war that began in 1979 and ended in 1992; and the progressive collapse of coffee farms due to the fall in grain prices and the persistent return of the El Niño phenomenon, which has devastated 68% of the department's crops and affected 23,491 producing families in recent years. The intense volcanic activity, which makes El Salvador one of the world's leading geothermal energy providers, also carries risks. Geothermal energy generates 24% of the country's electricity with 204MW and is expected to expand to 40% by 2020, according to a report by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Although the municipality of Berlín benefits directly from the activities of the geothermal industry because it generates employment and income from exploitation rights, it also generates poisoning and skin diseases from gas emissions in facilities operating close to the community. Seismic swarms are also frequent in Sierra de Tepaca. For example, in the mountainous municipalities of Berlín and Mercedes Umaña, it trembled 33 times on 26th June 2016, due to the activation of geological faults. To mitigate the risks before natural events, the programme supports the promotion and implementation of the National Earthquake Contingency Plan and the National Civil Protection Plan, by training and certifying technicians from the Municipal and Departmental Civil Protection Commissions of Usulután. The programme also hopes to validate the municipal and regional plans through drills, the systematisation of risk management processes and a safe housing construction programme. Usulután is the largest department of El Salvador, covering 10 percent of the national territory with its 2,130 km2. For this reason, the Departmental Head of Civil Protection, Marcelino Hernández, considers the cooperation of humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross essential because the country does not have the technical or financial resources to deal with emergencies. Hernandez welcomed the inclusion of the Civil Protection team from the beginning of the programme because they covered sectors where resilience had not been worked on. "As we are here, we know where there is help and where there is not, and where is more needed. That is one of the advantages of working on this Red Cross programme since its inception, because we were able to focus our efforts on those places where we had not worked to build resilience in the communities that needed it most.”
The mayor of Berlín, Jesús Antonio Cortez Mendoza, admitted that although the Municipal Civil Protection Commission was already formed as required by law, its members had not received the technical training they are receiving in the project. Despite the shortcomings, Cortez Mendoza emphasises that in his municipality the strength lies in human resources. "The intention of people is to collaborate, to help when there is an emergency. And with the training they are providing us with, we will react in a better way and avoid human losses. We will also identify and avoid the risks."
One of the surprises of the Coordinator of the Environmental Unit of the Mayor's Office of Mercedes Umaña, Jesús Roberto Iraeta, during the meetings with the facilitators of the Red Cross, was the discovery that they were exposed to more risks than they had imagined. "Thanks to the Red Cross project, we have realised that we are vulnerable to other phenomena such as drought, seismic swarms and landslides. This project has awakened us to the fact that we have all kinds of vulnerabilities. Regarding community participation in the trainings, Iraeta said "there is all sorts in the communities" but most people from Santa Anita, Montañita and Los Llanitos have responded to the call for the workshops. Iraeta said that the knowledge he has acquired will be useful to him in the performance of his duties long after the project is completed. "We didn't have a risk map, we had an idea of the risk history, but there was no map. That is going to work for us today and forever. Another advantage will be to have the community commissions and the population organised and trained. That's the most important thing, that there's been an awakening and we're not so sleepy regarding vulnerability.” Drought is one of the natural events that affects the inhabitants of Mercedes Umaña with greater intensity each year and it had not been identified as a vulnerability. "We have to get communities used to adapting and be alert that we are subject to having a natural event like drought. With these trainings they are learning to defend themselves.” On the other hand, Mauricio Ernesto Hernández, coordinator of the Environmental Unit of the Alegría City Hall, stated that from the beginning of the project they had already begun to perceive changes in the community to warn of the dangers and respond to emergencies. "We see that the situation is changing. Now our communities are the first to respond at an event. They are trained because they have been given talks about how to maintain their community and respond to an event. Secondly, they've been equipped. That's very important. Because it's not just training, if they don't have the tools to act, they can't do it. We, as Civil Protection, have come to help from the outside, but the first response is theirs.” "Only if we work together we will we reach resilience", is the first sentence that Luis Alonso Quintanilla, Coordinator of the Environmental Unit of the Berlín City Council tells us when we begin the interview. He points out that the main learning is that only through the organisation and inter-institutional support of municipal governments, non-governmental organisations and private institutions can some kind of development be achieved. "This process has taught us that only by organising, training and working directly with the population, coordinated through the municipal and national civil protection commissions, we can achieve resilience. This project is providing us with an important and valuable tool to achieve that coordination.” Quintanilla said he learned how to manage graphic information systems, to develop risk maps, and to elaborate community and municipal plans. "After these 18 months of the project we will be a more resilient municipality. Our communities have learned to manage their own information, to manage their own resources and therefore, to respond immediately to any disaster.”