SAN SALVADOR (AlertNet) – In an effort to make communities more resilient to disasters, El Salvador’s schools and universities have begun teaching students how to deal with the risks of extreme weather and climate change.
The small Central American country has been hit by three heavy rainy seasons in three years, with storms and flooding causing as many as 200 deaths and serious damage to crops and infrastructure.
From January, the government has now made it mandatory for all public and private educational institutions to incorporate environmental safety considerations into their teaching materials.
In maths, biology and physics, for example, students will undertake exercises that estimate potential damage from climate-linked extreme weather, and explore how to counteract and reduce its effects.
Ignacio Rosa, one 12-year-old pupil in San Salvador, says he believes the new teaching approach will be well received in the classroom, particularly as so many families in El Salvador have had first-hand struggles with the country’s recent extreme weather.
"It seems very good to me, because we will learn something new. Not only will we be taught that two plus two is four, but we will be shown the impacts of rain on our lives," he said.
Erlinda Handal, the country’s vice education minister, said the awareness-raising initiative is needed to protect both human life and ecosystems in El Salvador.
"Implementing this system is a necessity because of the vulnerability of our territory (to climate impacts),” she said.
The school year also will be modified to enable students to stay at home during the rainy season, in order to prevent disruption of classes by flooding and landslides.
In addition, the government plans to use a range of public awareness efforts, including advertising campaigns, to boost understanding of climate risks among the general public, Handal said.
OCTOBER RAINS CRISIS
Maria Santos Garcia, who lives with her 10 children in the modest Salvadoran beach resort of Jucuarán, is one of those who had her life turned upside down by last October’s torrential rains.
"I lost my house because it was constructed of zinc sheet and palm. Not only that, we also lost our maize field,” said the 44-year-old widow. “I feel very sorry.”
The 15,000 residents of Jucuarán, a town located 130 km southeast of the capital San Salvador, increasingly suffer damage to their homes and crops on an almost annual basis.
A 2010 report from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) warns that 90 percent of El Salvador’s territory is at risk from natural hazards.
Many of the country’s villages are located at the feet of hills and mountains, making them vulnerable to landslides, while others are close to river banks prone to flooding.
Experts predict that climate impacts will continue to have a negative impact on the country’s agriculture, water resources and biodiversity.
Jaime Acosta, a climate change analyst with the non-governmental Centre for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), told AlertNet that El Salvador is likely to experience more heavy rains during the growing season and warmer summer temperatures.
But a recent report on managing the risks of extreme weather from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also said there is a 50 percent chance that droughts in Central America will intensify this century.
The report warns it is likely - a two-thirds chance or more - that climate change will produce tropical cyclones that bring heavier rains and higher wind speeds. The frequency of storms, however, may stay unchanged or decrease, the report predicts.
MOVING PEOPLE OUT OF HARM’S WAY
To deal with increasing severe weather, the government is strengthening weather and climate monitoring systems, including installing radar stations, improving measuring of water levels and constructing river embankments.
It also hopes that teaching students about climate-related disaster risks and launching wider information campaigns will change behaviour among the public, and help people take action to avoid or reduce damage from floods and other hazards.
Since January 2010, the national Civil Protection System has led disaster awareness and prevention efforts in the country's most vulnerable communities, located on river banks and hillsides, to stop more deaths in the rainy season.
Residents are organised to evacuate in emergency scenarios, and then transported to shelters where they receive assistance from authorities. During last October’s severe rains, nearly 60,000 people from 160 communities were moved temporarily.
"We have greatly improved the ability to reduce loss of life (from disasters) but now the challenge we have is to reduce economic losses,” said Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s minister of environment and natural resources. “The country cannot afford to lose hundreds of millions (of dollars) every year.”
Preliminary assessments indicate that damage from torrential rainfall and accompanying floods in the last two years amounted to $1.3 billion dollars - equivalent to 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
When it comes to agriculture, the government is working to help producers cultivate their fields in the dry season using irrigation.
And in the rainy season, which runs from May to October, they are being encouraged to grow crops that will not be spoiled by heavy precipitation.
Already El Salvador imports 70 percent of its rice, 35 percent of its beans and almost all the fruit and vegetables consumed in the country.
The agriculture ministry plans to expand its Family Agriculture Plan (FAP) - a programme launched in February 2011 to increase yields and diversify crops - so that it includes assistance on managing climate-related risks.
As well as seeds, fertiliser and financing, farmers will receive training and technical assistance on how to adapt to climate change and conserve biodiversity.
Most of the education and agricultural initiatives planned for 2012 are included in the $4.2 billion national budget for this fiscal year, with $79 million designated for the educational programme and $64 million for agriculture. But Rosa Chávez said protecting El Salvador from climate change requires annual spending of around $1.5 billion.
In December, Central American governments appealed to rich nations for $440 million in support to finance reconstruction after the damage wrought by last October’s storms. They also asked for financial, technical and scientific assistance to boost wider efforts to tackle climate change.
Nelson Renteria is a journalist based in San Salvador.