At the back of a brick building in a poor neighborhood of Acajutla—El Salvador's largest and oldest port—you can just make out the foundation of Marlene Canjura's former home. It was a small, metal-walled shack with a dirt floor and no toilet on the premises. During floods—and they come at least once a year here—water would rise as high as her thighs, stagnating inside for three days, and soaking the already-rotted frame that barely held the house up.
The house is gone now, and Canjura, her husband, and their four boys have moved to a new cinder block house—with a tile floor and a composting latrine—built by an aid group a short distance away. But for many poor people settled in this mangrove swamp, all the problems remain of living on marginal land, made more hazardous by the increased flooding climate change seems to be triggering.
And that's why Canjura, with the help of Oxfam America and a consortium of aid groups, is now rallying with other local activists to bring their problems to the attention of the Salvadoran government and push for help.
The consortium, made up of five donor groups and six local non-governmental organizations, started two years ago with a program called PRVAS—or Programa Reducción de Vulnerabilidades Ahuachapán-Sonsonate. The program helps communities in the area organize themselves to better prepare for disasters, carry out small mitigation projects, and win the ear of local governments. The idea behind the PRVAS is to help people help themselves—and find ways to make a new civil protection law, passed in 2005, work for them.
"If we just continue from an emergency response perspective, all we'll do year after year is help rescue people," says Henry Giovani Magaña the coordinator for PRVAS. "We won't help people overcome their vulnerabilities—which is what we want."
The landless settle
We are sitting in a small community center, a low-slung ocean-front structure on loan to residents in this coastal region from a Salvadoran living in the US. Other buildings—some less substantial than this one—line both sides of the street. And further back, amid pools of murky water, stretch what's left of the mangroves in this area. The construction of a railroad down to the coast in the 1930s marked the beginning of their end.
Magaña explains that when the railroad came, landless families, in search of jobs and a place to live, settled here, and slowly the swampland began to get developed. Nearby, the Sensunapan River, now reportedly one of the most polluted in this tiny country, drains into the sea, its water silted and brown. The river serves as both a source of income—shirtless diggers scoop boatloads of sand from its floor—and dread: During heavy rains, the Sensunapan spills from its channel and floods the surrounding homes.
Though fill and levees have altered the landscape in these coastal neighborhoods, the basic topography has not changed—with consequences that have proved dire in the decades since for poor people clinging to this strip of land along the Pacific.
"Nature doesn't make mistakes," says Magaña. "It wants this to be wet. There are floods here all the time."
And now, compounding the trouble, are changing weather patterns that are making life even more challenging for the families struggling here.
Changes over time
"About five years ago we started to notice that the sea is coming in further, and when there are very high tides it's slowly eroding houses along the shore," says Hilton Alcir Aguilar, a volunteer coordinator for the five coastal neighborhoods participating in the PRVAS program in Acajutla. "And the rains are heavier. Before, it would take two hours of rain for water to rise high enough to flood. Now, it happens in one hour."
Canjura has spent all of her 30 years right here in the La Playa neighborhood. And in that time she has begun to see changes that are having serious implications for her family.
"When we have these temporales—the storms that rain for several days—the water rises. But with climate change, we're seeing more flooding and we're also seeing it in areas that didn't flood before," she says. "Here most of the men are fishermen and they used to be able to haul in a lot but because of climate change, the fish seemed to have migrated away from here. It's really affected their ability to support their families. Some are looking for work as bricklayers. Some have opened bike repair shops. And some continue to fish."
Her husband is one of those—a fisherman.
"It has affected us," says Canjura. "He's getting less fish. If we used to eat two tortillas at a meal, now we're eating one." Sometimes, she says, her children go hungry.
Searching for solutions
"When you talk to people about climate change here, they're much more concerned," said Magaña. "They know storms are going to get worse, and if they're already living in vulnerable positions, it will make them more vulnerable."
What are the answers?
One solution, says Canjura, is the construction of a levee system on the Sensunapan River that would protect the densely populated community along one of its banks. But the price tag is steep, and no one has agreed to fund it, she adds. Nevertheless, other smaller projects proposed by locals and supported by PRVAS members are now moving ahead.
"We're trying to organize community councils so we can put together project proposals and seek support," says Canjura. She points to the recent construction of a seawall in La Playa as proof of what's possible when enough people get behind an idea. Designed to keep high tides from slopping onto the coastal road and into the homes of people along it, the seawall was built with help from Caritas, the mayor's office, and plenty of manual labor provided by the community.
"All of us felt very proud," says Canjura. "We were very happy we were able to achieve that."
Other projects in the works include the paving of a dirt evacuation route in the community of El Milagro. All it takes is two hours of heavy rain before the neighborhood floods with water up to people's knees, says José Vidal Aguillón, chairman of a local community council. A paved evacuation route will allow them to get out fast—without vehicles getting stuck in the mud. A broad drainage ditch, also under construction, will help the floodwaters to drain away more quickly—and prevent possible contaminants in the water from lingering.
But construction projects aren't all that's needed to help poor people in coastal Acajutla weather the increasing challenges they face. They need a voice and they need influence—both of which PRVAS is slowly helping them muster.
"From the training in disaster risk reduction we've gone through with the PRVAS program, we've built our skills to advocate for greater aid from the government—and we're also getting more involved in working with the government," says Aguilar, the community coordinator. "The biggest achievement is the unity in the five communities—that we're united behind the same goal—and the influence we're starting to have in different government institutions."
With that influence, perhaps the communities will be able to lobby successfully for more opportunities for advanced schooling or vocational training in Acajutla—both critical if people are to become competitive in the job market. With fishing drying up, many of the Acajutla's breadwinners are going to have to find other means of making a living.
Canjura seems to be keenly aware of that. She has only a sixth-grade education, and her husband stopped his schooling after the third grade. But all four of their children are steadily moving up through the grades, even as finding the resources to buy the necessary school supplies is a constant worry for Canjura and her husband. Their oldest son will soon be entering eighth grade.
Would she like to see them go on to high school?
Canjura sighs deeply at the question, and is silent for a moment.
"That's my goal," she says finally. "I really want them to get ahead. But the way things are now, it's pretty hard."