Politics of Poverty

How Salvadoran towns are leading on disaster management

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Children race along an evacuation route identified by the local civil-protection committee...Evacuation route (see sign). Although 30 houses were destroyed in this town during the November 2009 storm, thanks to good planning and timely action by an Oxfam-trained community group, everyone survived the disaster. (Photo: Claudia Barrientos / Oxfam America)

Oxfam is advocating for donors to work harder to support local self-reliance in emergencies. Community leaders in El Salvador, together with leaders at various levels, are taking important steps to make sure they’re prepared when disaster strikes.

This blog post is the second in a series about how people in El Salvador are working to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. Previously: While the sun shines: How Salvadorans are leading their own efforts to prepare for the worst;

Panchimalco is a community of about 40,000 people just south of San Salvador.  Perched on the crest of a mountain, 93 percent of the households in Panchimalco are vulnerable to natural risks like flooding and landslides, either due to poverty or their location.

Despite being at the epicenter of a major 1986 earthquake that devastated El Salvador, and caused 2,500 casualties in the town, no risk management efforts had been made in Panchimalco until just six years ago.  Beginning in 2009, the municipality set up an emergency management center in the City Hall, where they can receive data from the central government and monitor threats to the community.

The emergency management center is less glamorous than it may sound.  It’s a 200 square foot room in the City Hall, with a single door and single window.  In one corner sits a pile of yellow reflective safety vests, some shovels, and pickaxes.  At the opposite corner, a flat screen monitor features a live data feed from the national government in San Salvador, which provides real time information on weather and seismic conditions.  In the middle of the room is a desktop computer, containing a database of the community’s vulnerabilities and vulnerable households.  The total cost to set up the center was US$30,000.

But more significant than this physical infrastructure is the town’s human infrastructure.  A major part of El Salvador’s improvements in disaster management has been a deliberate shift away from a focus on emergency response—which treats citizens as passive victims in need of help from city hall—to risk management and civil protection, which relies on the local community commissions to lead their own preparedness and response efforts.  As a result, Panchimalco now has a well-organized system of community commissions, covering almost all of the municipal territory.

Rosa Ramos, leader of one Panchimalco community commission, explains how the groups work to mange emergencies:

“I volunteer with the commission four weekends a month.  We meet from 2 to 5 pm every Sunday, in the house of one of our commission members.  Once a month we conduct trainings, on Saturdays from 8 to Noon.  All the members of the commissions are volunteers—no one gets paid.  We just get a coffee break, and our materials.”

I asked Rosa how the commission works in an emergency; she explained their response to the Dengue and Chikungunya epidemics that were spreading across El Salvador at the time of our visit: “We received a green alert from the Ministry of Health; that meant it was time for us to plan how we would respond.  We began by cleaning up trash in our community.  We picked it up, and the municipality hauled it away.  Next, they gave us pesticide to treat standing water.  Then we fumigated homes; we did 220 homes the first day, and the remaining 166 the second day.  We also gave talks in the schools, for all the children, and also 76 parents.  We shared posters and educational materials about how to prevent dengue.  The school also sent students out to help with the clean up.”

As a result of community-led efforts like this, at the time of our visit, the entire Panchimalco municipality had only recorded 14 cases of Dengue, and none of Chikungunya.

I asked Rosa what motivated her to get involved with the commission.  “When I was young, I studied health in school, so that motivated me to help others.  In 2005, when Hurricane Stan came through, I had to set up a shelter in my neighborhood.  It was a disaster.  I saw a need to be prepared.  So I joined the community commission and tried to motivate others to join.”


Oxfam is advocating that humanitarian actors do more to support local leadership and self-reliance in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies:

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