Date: Thu, 11 Jun 98 09:09:56 CDT
A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
El Salvador on brink of environmental disaster; Deforestation, water shortage major concerns
By Edward Hegstrom, Houston Chronicle, http://www.chron.com/news/, Monday 8 June 1998
SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador -- Old-timers here see the changes in the hills, once forested, now covered by nothing but rocks and sand. They note the difference in the river, nearly dry in recent years. They feel it in the weather, hotter now, less rain.
Even blue skies are mostly just a memory, now obscured much of the year by an oppressive blanket of grayish smoke produced by the deliberate burning of agricultural fields and garbage.
"Ten or 12 years ago, there used to be more rain," said Patrocinio Chicas, 61, a lifelong resident of this town in the eastern El Salvador state of Morazan. "It's worse now. Even the corn doesn't grow well anymore."
Ravaged by civil war throughout the 1980s, eastern El Salvador now faces an environmental disaster.
Massive deforestation has dislodged the top soil and changed the climate, government environmental experts say, putting this once heavily wooded region at risk of becoming nothing more than a hot and dusty desert.
Grave as the problem may be, it represents just part of the environmental crisis threatening all of El Salvador, the most densely populated country in the Americas.
Once nearly covered by forests, El Salvador now contains just 2 percent natural forest cover, less than any other country in Latin America.
The environmental problems have forced people into the capital of San Salvador, where overcrowding has generated smog and other problems. At least 11,000 Salvadoran children die every year because of respiratory ailments believed related to air pollution, according to one study.
"We have the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people who die every week because of health problems related to pollution," said Ricardo Navarro, a U.S.-educated environmentalist based in San Salvador. "El Salvador doesn't face an environmental crisis in the future. The crisis is right now."
The population boom in San Salvador has also increased the demand for water and caused the city's aquifers to drop by more than three feet a year. One government study predicts that San Salvador, a city of 1.5 million, may face a severe water crisis by the year 2005.
Water scarcity is also a problem in other parts of the country.
Experts say consumerism has worsened the nation's environmental problems. As many as one in six Salvadorans now lives in the United States, and more than $1 billion is sent home to their relatives every year. The money, which represents nearly 15 percent of the overall economy, has helped transform El Salvador from a nation of rural producers into a country of urban consumers. The number of automobiles in the country, for example, doubled between 1990 and 1995.
Some economists argue that developing nations invariably experience severe environmental problems as they industrialize their economies. But many argue that the model doesn't work for this tiny Central American nation because its problems are already critical.
In El Salvador, "the natural resources have long since disappeared, and the environment cannot withstand more abuse without producing irreversible consequences," according to a study conducted last year by the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development.
Nowhere is the problem more severe than in the eastern part of the country. "The deforestation of eastern El Salvador is a very grave problem," said Ligia Consino, of the government's Environmental Ministry.
In a region of thin soils and hot tropical sun, deforestation can cause irreversible damage, experts say. When trees are stripped from the land, temperatures rise and the amount of rainfall drops. Rivers dry and aquifers are drained, causing water shortages.
A study funded by the United Nations on El Salvador's climate changes is set to begin later this year. But data already available has caused a good deal of concern.
Average temperatures rose by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit between 1970 and 1990 at one weather station in eastern El Salvador. Reductions in average precipitation have been documented as well.
"There is absolutely no doubt that the deforestation has caused climate changes in the east," said Orlando Chacon, a government meteorologist. "It's very worrisome."
The problems come at a time when the government is trying to coax Salvadorans to return to the land. The civil war forced hundreds of thousands of farmers to flee the countryside and to settle in San Salvador and the United States.
But some say that drought and land erosion only partially explain the reluctance of people to return to farming. "The people don't go back to the countryside because they've gotten used to television and running water," said Alejandro Israel Amaya, the governor of Morazan. "We have whole villages that are vacated."
But even conservatives like Amaya acknowledge that the environmental crisis plays a crucial role in the continued migration away from the countryside. The yield on corn crops has diminished in recent years, Amaya said, and the past two crops have failed entirely.
"When the corn doesn't grow, who's going to come back and farm the land?" he said.
Some studies have found that production of subsistence crops, such as corn and beans, has dropped by as much as 5 percent a year because of erosion alone.
With people abandoning the countryside and the capital suffering from smog and water shortages, where can Salvadorans go?
Some diplomats note that up to 1 million Salvadorans already live in the U. S. If the environmental crisis goes unchecked, they say, illegal migration from El Salvador may increase.
Edward Hegstrom is a free-lance journalist based in Guatemala.
Copyright 1998 The Houston Chronicle