Reducing disaster risks: women raise their voices in the streets and in the courts

By Elizabeth Stevens
“What we want is for our grandchildren to have tranquility,” says Mercedes Rivas (left), who works with Julia Margarita Cuellar and Ana Elizabeth Rivas (middle and right) to reduce disaster risks in their communities.

“The river overflowed,” says Mercedes Rivas, “but because of what we did, the impact was less.”

Rivas lives in the community of Aragon, El Salvador. She is a member of the Environmental Surveillance Committee, a local environmental and civil-protection committee supported by Oxfam partner PRO-VIDA, and she knows all about floods. When Hurricane Stan struck in 2005, the river that runs through her town spilled over its banks and onto the streets. Twelve houses were inundated, and she lost everything she owned. But when in November of 2009 a storm of even greater intensity dropped 14 inches of rain on Aragon in just four hours, the river posed less of a threat.

Unnatural disasters

Upstream from the town, the land rises steeply from the banks of the Gorrobo River. It’s hard to tell what the hillside once looked like: it has been buried under tons of construction waste and other fill—the result of an effort by a powerful landowner to extend his property. But the new mix of soil, concrete chunks, and rebar is loose, and when rains are heavy, debris slides down into the river. The more it fills the riverbed, the worse the flooding downstream.

So Rivas and the committee took the landowner to court—and won: he was forced to build giant terraces on the hill to protect the watershed, and now the flood risk in Aragon and neighboring communities is greatly diminished.

Still, at the height of the storm in November, it was hard to know what would happen.

The right call at the right time

Aragon is one of nearly 200 communities in El Salvador that Oxfam and its partners have identified as particularly vulnerable to dangers like floods and landslides. In 2008, we joined forces with teams of volunteers from each village and town who wanted to become experts in saving lives.

“Community members are always the first responders in disasters,” says Oxfam disaster specialist Enrique Garcia, “so we are making sure those who live in the most dangerous places are trained and equipped to support their communities effectively.”

The emergency teams—including the surveillance committee—now have a supply of flashlights, boots, bright jackets, helmets, first aid kits, and communications equipment. They know how to safely evacuate a town, and they know whom to call for help.

As the November storm intensified, Rivas and other women from the team in Aragon surveyed the river and made the call: evacuate three communities.

“We went to where the people were living in dangerous areas,” says committee member Julia Margarita Cuellar. “We knocked on doors to get them out of bed.”

That night, no houses were flooded in Aragon. In the nearby community of Las Brisas, where during Hurricane Stan 20 homes had been completely inundated, the river reached only four. And thanks to the evacuation effort, says Rivas, “By the time the water got in, the people were gone.”

One hundred ninety-eight people died in the storm in El Salvador. But one outcome was hopeful: wherever Oxfam partners had provided emergency training, everyone survived.

Going for broke

Knowing how to evacuate a neighborhood safely is great, but the Environmental Surveillance Committee and its supporters want more: they want towns that don’t need evacuating. So with PRO-VIDA by its side, the group has once again taken the landowner to court, demanding more action, more mitigation.

The group is growing and gaining strength. So, too, are the women who have taken the lead in fighting for the right to a safer community.

“I used to think that I wasn’t able to move people, but now I do,” says Ana Elizabeth Rivas, a member of the committee. Now, she says, “I speak to people, and they trust me and follow me.”