Floods in Central America: yet another debt owed by the Industrial North

Heavy rain over Salvador.
(Foto: Ricardo Segura/Flicrk)

In the last three weeks more than a hundred people have died in floods in Central America, and on Tuesday the governments of these countries demanded that the rich North should meet its “moral obligation” and “pay its environmental debts”. At a summit meeting in San Salvador they said, “The industrial development that began in 1850 is the main cause of the climate change we are all suffering from today” and the countries that have benefited from that process have “a duty to contribute to the costs of prevention and reconstruction in our countries”.

Alter the summit, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador said the industrialized countries “are responsible for carbon dioxide emissions”, and in the poor countries “we cannot go on burying our dead and putting up with the destruction” of crops and infrastructure caused by climate change.

Most scientists say that extreme weather-related events like hurricanes, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent because of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, these disasters are being caused by the rich countries and the poor are suffering the consequences.

The fact is that burning fossil fuels does not contribute to a country’s economic development, and this is plain to see from data in the 2011 Social Watch Basic Capabilities Index published this month. According to Roberto Bissio, coordinator of this global network of civil society organizations, “There are countries that have brought their infant mortality rates down to levels comparable to the United States but produce only a tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions, “so we should not be led to believe that a better quality of life inevitably requires production and consumption systems that destroy the environment.”

Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Research into Climate Change, told the IPS news agency that climate change and the rising global temperatures that go with it have intensified periodic phenomena like El Niño and La Niña, and this has caused severe flooding in Australia and South Asia and the severe drought this year that resulted in widespread famine in the Horn of Africa.

Jean-Cyril Dagorn, the head of the Oxfam France environment programmes, told the IPS that "For two years the rainfall in East Africa had been below average because of La Niña. But this year the drought has been extreme and has caused the current humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia and adjacent regions".

In the Comalapa Declaration, government representatives from the Central American countries that have been hit by unprecedented flooding warned the developed countries that they must “make a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions” and recognise “that Central America is a vulnerable region because” of those emissions.

These governments also asked for “assistance for reconstruction” from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Development Programme.

These governments agree with the general consensus among scientists that the Tropical Depression 12E, which is in full cry right now and has driven more than a million of the region’s 42 million inhabitants from their homes, is due to climate change. Various United Nations bodies have confirmed that Central America is one of the regions hardest hit by this phenomenon, and that it is caused by human activity.

Lorena Soriano, a meteorologist at the National Service for Territorial Studies of El Salvador, stated this week that these “extremely heavy rains” are linked “to changes that are taking place in the climate”. Another expert, Raúl Artiga, of the Central American Environment and Development Commission, told the AFP news agency that “climate change is not something that is going to come in the future … we are suffering from it already”.

Today in Central America there is “a worrying mix of climate variability and many effects of climate change”, and according to Maureen Ballestero, the Central America coordinator of the World Water Association, these disastrous effects have a human cause. She said, “We are living with the consequences of this phenomenon now”, and “we cannot just close our eyes to it”.

Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, explained that “What we have is a disturbance in the climate. In the 1960s and 1970s we were hit by one severe atmospheric phenomenon each decade. In the 1980s there were two. In the 1990s there were four. From 2000 to 2010 there were seven of these events. And in this new decade we have already had the first one. The question is: How many are there going to be?"

The 42 million people who live in Central America are now expecting a cold front that will put an end to the torrential rains, but the authorities fear that when this happens there will be outbreaks of flu, dengue and leptospirosis because many of the inhabitants are living in a precarious situation as a direct result of the storms. As if this were not enough, another extreme weather event, Hurricane Rina, is already hitting seaports in the region.

This year the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) issued a warning that the economic impact of climate change “will hurt public finances for several generations”. The accumulated cost of the damage in 2010 was 73,000 million current dollars, which is around 54% of the region’s gross product in 2008. But Artiga warned that what has happened recently has been worse than the most pessimistic predictions.

Quite apart from the loss of human lives, the floods have destroyed bridges, thousands of kilometres of roads and highways, and millions of dollars worth of cash and subsistence crops.

Eva Urbina, the coordinator of the Centre of Studies of Women-Honduras (CEM-H, the focal point of Social Watch), stated on Wednesday that large sectors of the population in her country were economically defenceless, and this, “aggravated by environmental risks and the effects of climate change”, translated into “cyclical disasters” that cause “immense suffering and mean untold work for the women who are heads of 95% of the households”.

In May this year the Coordinating Board of the NGO and Cooperatives of Guatemala (Congcoop, the focal point of Social Watch) warned that “There is no doubt that climate change will have a negative impact on the precarious food security situation” as it will “make cereals more expensive and cause even more shortages and malnutrition”. On Friday 21st, the Congcoop and various farmers’ organizations blamed the State for “the environmental, social and economic vulnerability of the peasants in the country”. These families are being forced to “plant crops and live on hillsides and riverbanks”, where they are plagued by earth slides and floods caused by climate change.

This report is based on data from the following sources:
The voice of Russia: http://bit.ly/bjzBo5
The Peruvian News Agency: http://bit.ly/bCaMUf
El País: http://bit.ly/na1v7k
Observador Global: http://bit.ly/1Wn3rN
The AFP Agency
The Efe Agency
Proceso Digital: http://bit.ly/QPKji
La Prensa Gráfica: http://bit.ly/57lFb
Prensa Latina: http://bit.ly/mrMq5
Defensores en Línea: http://bit.ly/w1yKCV
La Hora: http://bit.ly/4fCxVe
The Association for the Unity of Our America: http://bit.ly/mWu2pO