By Jeff Haas, Board Chair, EcoViva
On June 23rd, Overbook and North Star foundations in NYC hosted a North-South dialogue featuring Estela Hernandez and Walberto Gallegos from the Mangrove Association, Yael Falicov and Nathan Weller from EcoViva, and several grassroots groups from the NYC area responding to Hurricane Sandy. The purpose of the exchange was for each to learn how the other was dealing with extreme climate change and in particular disasters from flooding.
The NYC area groups presented first and told how the effects of Hurricane Sandy were still being felt six months after the storm. Low income and public housing residents, whose damaged homes and apartments had been repaired shoddily if at all, experienced the damage disproportionately. Most inspiring was how an organization of day laborers, primarily immigrants, had volunteered to fix up apartments where government contractors had done a particularly poor repair job.
Our partners from El Salvador gave the history of how regular flooding had led to an organized response including an early warning system through Mangrove Radio, quick mobilization of the community to rescue those stranded by flood waters, and the construction of flood shelters. We were proud to hear our partners report that since the launch of early warning systems in 1998 not one life has been lost during a flood or hurricane. This is despite the fact that our partner communities in El Salvador have invariably been some of the hardest hit by disasters due to their geographic location downstream from the largest dam systems in El Salvador. Their innovative mix of early warning systems, civil protection brigades and school-based disaster response committees helps ensure that the most vulnerable populations, including elderly people, the disabled and children, are evacuated early to safe shelters.
Both the US and Salvadoran presenters recognized that in addition to responding to immediate needs, a key role of grassroots organizations is to advocate for better government policies to rebuild after and to protect against future climate disasters. This is the mission of ALIGN NY, a coalition of local groups in New York City working to ensure that the $53 billion in federal funds promised for recovery is used to support the most marginalized communities, such as public housing residents, rather than displace them.
The tensions of displacement are something our local partners in El Salvador from La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association have dealt with for years. They have long struggled with the Lempa River Dam Authority, which has been responsible for countless floods in the Lower Lempa region, for its disregard for the settlements near the river and refusal to take responsibility for reducing flood vulnerability. The dam consistently chooses to keep its reservoirs high to ensure electricity generating capacity to the cities, despite the risks posed to more marginalized downstream rural communities. In October 2011 these tensions came to a head after tropical storm 12-E, during which the Lempa River dam released so much water that the levees on the river broke in 19 places. This time, our partners were finally successful in holding the Dam Authority accountable. They worked with the government to create a recovery commission which included local community representatives, government agencies and the Dam Authority. As of May 2013 the recovery commission had successfully overseen the implementation of $20 million in rebuilding funds provided by Dam Authority: the first time in recent history that the dam authority has taken responsibility for its role in the floods.
As a follow up to the New York dialogue, EcoViva has proposed a learning exchange on climate change and grassroots power-building in El Salvador where Hurricane Sandy responders could visit our partners. They will witness the mechanisms and infrastructure that the Mangrove Association has put in place to deal with the flooding that follows hurricanes and tropical storms in the Lower Lempa region, and how community organizing has vastly improved government response. Thus far, at least four New York area organizations: GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), Lower East Side Recovery Committee, Red Hook Initiative, and Added Value have expressed an interest in participating in a delegation to El Salvador, possibly accompanied by representatives from Hanuman Capital which is working on the financing side of climate change adaptation.
We are preparing a potential itinerary for the trip and working to find funding to help take the organizations to El Salvador. There could be great potential and mutual benefit from Mangrove Association hosting climate disaster responders and communicating their experience in dealing with climate catastrophes to North American audiences. The tremendous resilience and high level of organization of our partner communities in the face of climate disasters is a victory from which New York, New Orleans and other coastal and river-based communities can benefit.