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El Salvador builds resilience in the face of a stormy future

Also posted in Spanish

Recognising its extreme vulnerability to climate change, El Salvador has made great strides in developing a National Strategy for Climate Change. Carolyn Fry and Gabriela Villamarin report.

El Salvador faces acute vulnerability to climate disasters. According to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, almost 90% of its land area is at risk from such events, 95% of its population live in risk zones and 96% of its gross domestic product (GDP) is produced in risk zones[1]. In three years alone, climate-related events caused losses and damage amounting to US$1.3 billion[2]. The nation’s annual GDP is around US$23 billion.

In an effort to increase the resilience of its economy and people to climate-related events, El Salvador commissioned a project in 2011 to develop and implement a National Policy and Strategy for Climate Change, which culminated with the launch of the National Environmental Policy in June 2012 and the National Environmental Strategy in June 2013, both incorporating climate change goals. The government is now preparing Action Plans for putting the strategy into practice. CDKN’s support of local stakeholder dialogues, underpinned by studies undertaken by international experts, laid the foundations for this.

“The big achievement of this project has been to engage with different Ministries, such as Education, Agriculture, Infrastructure and Treasury, and […] each of these Ministries has owned the development of [its] own climate change strategy and plans,” explains Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Environment and Natural Resources Minister. “In the beginning there was a risk that all these strategies would require a huge and sole effort from MARN [Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales – the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources], which was not the case.”

With an area of around 20,000km2, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. It has steep topography, with many slopes exceeding 30 degrees, and short watersheds. Its one main river, the Lempa, has its headwaters and part of its course in neighbouring countries. Severe deforestation and soil erosion have made the landscape vulnerable to landslides and forest fires. These characteristics, coupled with severe fiscal constraints, make the nation highly susceptible to the impacts of extreme weather events. In 2010, losses to agriculture from flooding exceeded USD100 million, while those resulting from drought were USD38 million[3].

Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in the frequency and duration of storms, as well as a marked change in the pattern of their occurrence. Hurricanes used to strike El Salvador infrequently, only came from the Atlantic and were limited to the months of September and October. However, since the mid 1990s, such storms have occurred more frequently, originated in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and have struck in six different months of the year.

The El Salvador government created MARN in response to the increase in extreme weather events and began promoting the integration of climate change into national policy. Initially this was aimed at fulfilling the country’s obligations after ratifying the UNFCCC and the Kyoto protocol. However, since Hurricane Ida in 2009, the government’s stance had shifted towards integrating risk reduction into all areas of policy, including financial.

The findings from CDKN’s work contributed to a base document that laid the foundations for developing a National Strategy on Climate Change (NSCC). This NSCC was incorporated in the National Environment Strategy (NES), which comprised four strands: climate change; biodiversity; hydrological resources and environmental sanitation. Launched in June 2013, the NES stated that the main effort for the NSCC was “to reverse environmental degradation” in order to “reduce vulnerability to climate change.”

The ministry is now in the process of preparing Action Plans to implement its environmental strategies, which will involve a major landscape restoration effort. This has been provided for in the ministry’s flagship program, the National Program for Ecosystem and Landscape Restoration (PREP), which is currently being implemented. Bringing the programme to fruition requires MARN to enter into political agreements at inter-ministerial and sub-national levels, and significant funds will be needed to fulfil this massive transformation.

Ecosystem-based approaches of this type often introduce reforestation and conservation agriculture techniques. These contribute to mitigation by increasing carbon storage, while bolstering adaptation by reducing the scale of flooding and landslides. MARN is now actively promoting the idea of linking PREP to international goals and commitments, for example, the Bonn Challenge, REDD+ and the 2020 Aichi Targets.

CDKN was originally commissioned to provide in-depth support to the National Strategy for Climate Change by providing research and analysis on water, agriculture, education, health and infrastructure. This brief was later widened to make it more flexible, so the team could respond to events occurring during the course of the project. The reality was that the start of the project coincided with a national emergency prompted by Tropical Depression 12–E; initial work was therefore aimed at helping Minister Rosa to develop a reconstruction plan.

This event placed issues of managing risk, reducing vulnerability and adapting to climate change on the national agenda at the highest political level. CDKN was subsequently able to carry out an in-depth investigation into the institutional capacity of MARN and SINAMA, the country’s inter-ministerial and inter-municipal platform for public environmental management and policy-making.[4] Although the government had made progress in improving its emergency response and reducing deaths from natural disasters, the team found that much work was needed to improve how it managed risks, particularly those associated with climate change. In particular, it found there was a need to strengthen the social, political and technical skills of the staff.

“Besides the traditional environmental operations of MARN, such as providing meteorological forecasts and issuing environmental licences, the Ministry needed to play a strategic role, linked to the Presidential Cabinet, and to coordinate SINAMA, which encompassed different ministries and over 250 municipalities,” explains Isabella Souza, CDKN’s former Project Manager. “This context required MARN and SINAMA to develop new institutional structures, and ensure its staff were prepared to deal with new situations. A technician, for example, should not talk only in technical terms when trying to negotiate an agreement with the mayor of a municipality severely impacted by extreme weather events. Climate compatible development and disaster risk reduction goals demanded that all stakeholders develop new soft skills, as well as technical skills.”

With these needs in mind, CDKN has begun work on a second phase of support, which is now in progress. It has two aims. First, on an organisational level, the team hopes to strengthen MARN and SINAMA’s institutional coordination capacities so that they are more able to develop and implement policies that make El Salvador’s society and economy more resilient to climate change. Second, on an individual level, it aims to strengthen MARN and SINAMA’s human resources and to define staff competencies around roles in climate change development and disaster risk management.

Additionally, at a regional level, CDKN is helping to disseminate El Salvador’s dual mitigation and adaptation approach. The aim is to share the lessons learned and benefits of combining mitigation efforts with adaptation approaches with other Central American countries, as an example of climate compatible development in practice.

As well as laying out clear ambitions for MARN and SINAMA, El Salvador’s government has put its money where its mouth is by the Ministry of the Treasury’s explicitly including climate adaptation as one of the major concerns when developing the national budget. A national priority confirmed in the 2013 Budget Policy is: “Halting environmental degradation and promoting climate change adaptation” (Ministerio de Hacienda (Ministry of Finance), 2012). In time, the hope is that El Salvador’s mitigation and adaptation efforts will stand as an example to other countries in Central America and beyond, of the benefits of placing climate change at the heart of government policy.



[1] Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, 2010: 96. Cited in Winds of change for facing climate change in El Salvador: Foundations for a National Strategy, 2012.

[2] Winds of change for facing climate change in El Salvador: Foundations for a National Strategy, 2012.

[3] Winds of change for facing climate change in El Salvador: Foundations for a National Strategy, 2012.

[4]The Environmental Law established SINAMA: the National Environmental Management System, with the purpose of “establishing, operating and maintaining the principles, standards, programming, direction and coordination for State-run environmental management in in public sector agencies.” To comply with the Environmental Law, all ministries, municipalities and autonomous institutions should have environmental units that make up the SINAMA operational level. The units respond directly to senior management of each entity or institution.(Described in the National Environmental Policy, section 7, p. 30)


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