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Adaptation to Climate Change in El Salvador – Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis of Communities Amando López and Octavio Ortiz in the Lower Lempa Valley

This work summarizes research done on capacities and vulnerabilities of two Salvadorian campesino communities prone to annual flooding.


In the past few years great disasters following climatic extreme events have increased in El Salvador. They tend to be portrayed by national media as naturaland unavoidable,building a barrier to effective adaptation to climate change. This work summarizes research done on capacities and vulnerabilities of two Salvadorian campesinocommunities prone to annual flooding.

Results show that community vulnerabilities are based on unsatisfied basic needs such as poor access to education, health service, public infrastructure and constant food insecurity. Capacities of farmers are evident in their 19 adaptation strategies at work, presenting 26 other adaptation proposals for the future.

There are initiatives combining traditional and innovative approaches based on disaster risk reduction, climate-resilient livelihoods and capacity development, also addressing underlying causes of vulnerability. Capacity assessment in state institutions for the implementation of national adaptation strategies shows, however, insufficient comprehension of the poverty/vulnerability relationship. Governmental support for rural areas is almost non-existent and developmentprojects for national economic growth often generate new local risks. With most productive land in the hands of small farmers, community-based adaptation to enhance resilience of vulnerable communities is, for the time being, one of the most effective implementation approaches to adaptation to climate change in rural areas of El Salvador.


This study was conducted in conjunction with the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA) and the local communities of Amando López and Octavio Ortiz.

The bulk of the field work was conducted between September and December 2010, and the field work was complete by February 2011. The last project meeting was held in San Salvador in April 2011.

Main research objectives:

  • gathering information to integrate adaptation in resource management/livelihood programs in the two communities
  • producing a final document to disseminate results, guiding similar research work – easily replicable in communities of the Lower Lempa Valley – and for political advocacy
  • elaborating an adaptation plan for the two communities (to be completed in 2012)
  • giving voice to vulnerable communities

Climate Change in Central America

  • Climate variability (increased frequency/intensity of extreme weather events), rising sea levels, rising temperatures.

Climate Change in El Salvador

  • Highly vulnerable to hydro-meteorological events
  • From 2002 to 2011 struck 9 times by cyclones/low pressure systems
  • Last 3 events – E/96 Ida, Agatha Storm, TD 12E– caused $1300 million losses (6% GDP)


This research used a combination of qualitative and quantitative tools that cross-cut a number of sectoral levels including the household, community, municipal and national. These tools are described below:

Quantitative Research Elements:

  • 206 questionnaires
  • Participation of 37 young volunteer researchers, many from the Lower Lempa Valley
  • 7 workshops needed to prepare volunteers

Qualitative Research Elements:

Ethnographic tools

  • Participant Observation
  • 28 informal/semi-structured interviews

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)

  • 7 focal group workshops (hazard mapping, seasonal calendar, historical timeline, vulnerability matrixes, Venn diagrams)
  • 3 Transect Walks

For more information please see the Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (CVCA) handbook

Mr. Mauricio at the workshop (left), Household survey (right)

Main Findings

Major Climatic Hazard: Floods

  • Last flood events: Agatha Storm (2010), TD 12E (2011)
  • Second major climatic hazard: droughts
  • Last drought events: 2008, 2009
Main livelihood activity: subsistence agriculture Resources at risk
  • Agricultural lands
  • Water
  • People and their capacities (entire Lower Lempa Valley population evacuated during TD 12E)
  • Public infrastructure and productive assets

Main Vulnerabilities

1. Education (most vulnerable: women, children, disability sector)

2. Chronic Food Insecurity (most vulnerable: children)

  • Reduced food intake after harvest losses
  • Families forced to sell/use last assets and/or ask for credits
  • Absence of risk transfer mechanisms

3. Health (most vulnerable: children)

Main health problems: Chronic respiratory diseases, Malnutrition, Chronic Renal Insufficiency (CRI)

Health service provision limited by:

  • lack of a laboratory to accelerate diagnosis and avoiding spread of diseases
  • shortage of medicines/equipment/qualified staff

4. Infrastructure/Provision of Basic Services(most vulnerable: pregnant women/with small children, disability sector, elders)

  • No post-disaster rehabilitation
  • No sewage system
  • No garbage collection
  • Unpaved streets
  • No public lighting
  • No systematic maintenance of drainage system

CBA Initiatives and Proposals

(see full description of each initiative and proposal in pdf file attached or you can ask for it to be sent by contacting the author at: [email protected])

You can also download a poster presentation at, or download the whole research report –in Spanish- at

Resilient Livelihoods

  • Changes in Agricultural Cycles
  • Crop Diversification
  • Native Seed Rescue
  • Agroecological/Agroforestry Systems
  • Introduction/Experimentation of More Resistant Crops
  • Elaboration, Use and Sale of Organic Fertilizers.
  • Crop Rotation
  • Rescue and Consumption of Locally-Grown Food
  • Participatory Processes in Municipal Development Planning (proposal)
  • Community Ownership/Leadership of Development Processes (proposal)
  • Capacity Building on Environmental Protection and Climate Change
  • Manufacture/Commercialization of Traditional Organic Products

Agroecological/Agroforestry Systems (left), Traditional Organic Products (right)

Changing Agricultural Cycles (left), More Resistant Crops (right)

Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

  • Vigilance and Maintenance of Flood Protection System
  • Creation of Seed and Food Banks (proposal)
  • New Local Jobs in DRR Tasks (proposal)
  • A Hospital in the Lower LempaValley (proposal)
  • Risk Transfer to Secure Main Productive Assets (proposal)
  • Safe Locations for Cattle in Case of Disaster (proposal)
  • CO2 Emissions Reduced to 0 in Community Transportation
  • Community Natural Resource Management
  • Basic Infrastructure Improvements (proposal)
  • Use of Silos to Store Basic Grains

Local Jobs in DRR (left), Getting trees for a family orchard (right)

Knowledge Sharing (left), Community Natural Resource Management (right)

Capacity Building

  • Knowledge Sharing
  • Promotion of Capacities to Diversify Livelihood Activities (proposal)
  • Specific Initiatives for Female Household Heads (proposal)
  • Evaluate Possibilities to Create a Local Currency (proposal)

Initiatives for Female Household Heads

Addressing Underlying Causes of Vulnerability

  • Political Advocacy and Social Mobilization

CESTA Suggestions for CBA in Communities Amando López and Octavio Ortiz

  • To Create a Strategy for Sustainable Cattle Ranching
  • Capacity Building to Sue Those Generating Life-Threatening Risks
  • To Study Possibilities to Create a TimeBank
  • To Establish a Local Market
  • Capacity Building on Human Rights
  • To Strengthen Capacities of Municipal Government

Other Areas Needing Advocacy Work:

  • Compliance of established ordinances for the maintenance of the flood protection system
  • Implementation of DRR actions in the Hyogo Framework of Action of relevance for communities
  • Respect for the rights of groups at risk of social exclusion
  • Elaboration of Environmental Impact Assessments for all major infrastructure projects
  • Integral planning of development land use to include coastal areas, water resources and watershed management
  • Improvement of the Lower Lempa Early Warning System to reach all vulnerable communities and including monitoring of all major potential risks

Barriers to Adaptation

Unaddressed Anthropogenic Risk Factors

  • Breakages in the Lower Lempa Valley Flood Protection System – initiated in 1999 and never completed
  • Water discharges by Hydroelectric Power Station

Ineffective Poverty Alleviation

  • Poverty/vulnerability nexus unaddressed
  • Obsolete Poverty Indicators– Family Shopping Basquet
  • Poverty Reduction National Programs – Lower Lempa does not qualify

Lack of Institutional Capacities

  • Adaptation not considered a national priority but an additional cost – No Climate Change/Adaptation National Programs. Key themes for adaptation (food insecurity, water), not prioritized
  • DRR concentrated on emergency assistance – no post-disaster rehabilitation of local economies
  • Limited investigation/information sharing

Adaptation vs Development

  • Climate change considerations not integrated in development planning – Priority: rising country´s competitiveness in international markets

Lack of Investment for Local Food Production

Public Investment 2009:

  • Agriculture 3.5%
  • Environment 1.4%
  • Transport Infrastructure 67.5%

Decision Making Processes Dominated by Private Sector

  • Most economic sectors controlled by family oligarchies
  • Job creation primary directed to temporary employment and trade free zones (maquilas)


-Lower Lempa Valley affected by multiple climate hazards, floods being main threat. Rural poor subsistence farmers/their territories most vulnerable.

-Irrational resource use tolerated in the name of national development.It generates/accumulates risks, increasing local exposure and susceptibility. Any climatic phenomena easily transformed into major disaster.

-National DRR efforts concentrate on attending emergencies once events transform into disasters. Unaddressed anthropogenic risk factors facilitating/causing overflowing of the Lempa River. Reactivation of local economies not included in post-disaster rehabilitation.

-While developmentefforts serve national elites/foreign interests, communities´ vulnerabilities continue to be based on unsatisfied basic needs. Poverty/vulnerability nexus ignored.

-Food sovereignty at risk by lack of investment in rural producers for local markets.

-Violation of human, political and civil rights –rights to life, physical integrity, employment, property and food-.

-Lack of State capacities for adaptation. Main climate change concern: implementing mitigation projects to enter carbon markets.

-Community-based adaptation, already effectively implemented by populations at risk and NGOs, is currently most efficient approach to increase long-term resilience and adaptive capacity in vulnerable communities in El Salvador.

Recommendations for Further Research

El Salvador lacks studies on: urban vulnerability, effects of rising-sea levels, vulnerabilities and capacities of communities at risk, and ongoing CBA experiences

Highly recommended to…

…use a multidisciplinary research approach. Social impacts of climate change understudied

…demystify disasters as naturalevents by including local risk knowledge

…apply a rights-based approach when revising plans/programs of economic development

…reconsider traditional migration push factors to include loss of livelihoods. It will help to identify new territories and sectors at risk

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