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The rains in El Salvador are beginning to let up. For more than a week, they’ve pounded every inch of this country, causing over 60,000 people to flee their homes for the safety of shelters. Rivers have breached their levees and washed away houses and roads, and hillsides bear the scars of hundreds of fresh landslides.
For days, a small team of local aid providers has been delivering essentials like tanks of clean water, sanitation and hygiene supplies, and cooking equipment to the shelters, expanding and complementing the National Civil Protection System. Their initial action was so swift that by the time the president declared a national state of emergency, thousands of displaced people were already benefiting from their work.
The aid workers are members of Salvadoran organizations, groups that are willing to put all their other work on hold when disaster strikes. And they are not just foot soldiers—they are experts, able to survey a shelter in the midst of an emergency and within hours get key relief materials delivered and water tanks installed that meet international standards for quality.
“There is this core of ten or fifteen people on the team who are working day and night,” says Karina Copen, Oxfam’s humanitarian program officer in El Salvador. “They’re so dedicated."
The core team on the ground is never entirely alone. All across the country, they are supported by community leaders who have been trained in the basics of caring for the public health needs of their people during emergencies. And they are backed by Oxfam.
The power of knowledge
For the past four years, Oxfam has led an effort to build the capacity of local Salvadoran communities, municipalities, and aid groups for handling emergencies like earthquakes and floods. Multi-day seminars and hands-on disaster simulations have helped transform the desire to help into hard-core expertise.
“In some ways, it would be easier to bring in a team of Oxfam specialists to do the work in emergencies,” says Copen. “But it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.”
“In a disaster, communities are the first responders,” she explains. “Before local or international aid agencies or government officials arrive, the affected communities need to make decisions and act.” So, training community leaders in the basics of public health—organizing shelters, maintaining sanitary conditions, and making sure people are drinking clean water—has been a top priority.
Training a core team of water and sanitation specialists has been even more labor-intensive, but everyone has benefited.
“In this emergency, team members have been able to come up with accurate technical assessments and then implement the response,” she says.
Confident in the team’s ability to handle the work on the ground, Copen and colleague Enrique García, Oxfam’s regional humanitarian coordinator, are able to focus on coordination.
The result: an effective and smooth-running disaster response that draws energy from its own success. “The people we’ve trained are not sitting around waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” says Copen. “They know how to help their communities, and they are stoked.”
The most pressing need: potable water
Now that the rains have eased and the sun has appeared, everyone in the shelters is eager to go home.
But the emergency doesn’t stop here. In the region known as the Bajo Lempa, the floods struck harder than anyone had seen in many years. Towns and villages are still deep in muck, their wells contaminated and their latrines flooded.
Now, Oxfam and the team are turning their attention to making home communities safe. The most pressing need, says Copen, is potable water.
There’s more to face: food shortages may threaten the recovery. Forty percent of the corn crop and 77 percent of the bean harvest have been lost to the floods, and prices are shooting up already. Oxfam is exploring ways to address the most urgent needs.
After days of ceaseless work, Copen sounds tired but hopeful.
“I’m always moved by the commitment of our partners, but this time I was also moved by the communities. They’re organizing themselves. They haven’t slept. They’re tending to each other’s needs. And they’re going back to their homes to start again.”
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