The Community in El Salvador Monitoring the Sea and the Rain Through WhatsApp

A community next to the sea
MalaYerba
Bola de Monte, El Salvador
The Community in El Salvador Monitoring the Sea and the Rain Through WhatsApp

Sitting under the shade of a palm tree, María del Cid types a message on her cell phone. It is noon here in the Bola de Monte hamlet, in the department of Ahuachapán, in western El Salvador. Maria is sitting in her backyard, a backyard that also includes the sea.

With the screen brightness at its maximum power, del Cid calls a meeting through a WhatsApp group. She locks her phone and within minutes, she starts to get response notifications.

del Cid was born at the sea’s shore. The beach has always been her backyard. A sea that, as she explains, has given her countless memories. “Most of them are happy,” she says with the smile of someone that is used to seeing spectacular sunrises. With a more hidden smile, she adds: “but, sometimes, it has brought us problems.”

In 2015, the sea flooded the community. In May of that year, the groundswell, a natural phenomenon that occurs between May and November, devastated crops and homes here in Bola de Monte, a community of 135 families, according to María del Cid, who depend on fishing.

According to Pablo Martínez, technician in the oceanography section of the water research and services department of the National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH, in Spanish) in Guatemala City, the groundswell is a high wave that occurs mainly when there is a cyclonic system near the region. These strong winds increase waves not only near the cyclone, but also in distant areas. Significant changes in atmospheric pressure, such as cold fronts, also generate strong winds and groundswells with enough energy to reach beaches like Bola de Monte.

A community next to the sea.
Aerial view of Bola de Monte, El Salvador / Credit: Alexander López.
A destroyed house
The 2015 sea surge damaged several houses in Bola de Monte / Credit: elsalvador.com

Martínez also points out the effect of the current climate crisis on the development of phenomena such as groundswell: “The increasingly frequent and strong presence of intensified winds also contributes to extreme weather events, such as storms and hurricanes, which, when they coincide with increased waves, create conditions conducive to the formation of groundswells”, says the expert.

The 2015 groundswell is the most intense that has been reported so far. And the reason why del Cid types in the WhatsApp group “Climate Monitoring” today is that she is part of the local civil protection committee. This is a community organization made up of fishers dedicated to constantly monitoring the sea, rivers and, in general, any event that could be a threat to their community.

A woman watching the sea
María del Cid in front of the sea. Behind her, a part of the "wall" she built, made of palms and coconut tow, to prevent the sea from invading her home / Credit: Alexander López.

Bola de Monte is a hamlet that grows in the sand. The closest urban area is Cara Sucia, 20 minutes by car along a stone and sand road. This is where access to healthcare for these families is concentrated. In Bola de Monte there are two stores, which are the ones that supply the families' pantries. They also sell some pills for stomach aches or headaches and data plans for communication.

The community organization was born in 2019 as resistance to the abandonment of the Salvadoran environmental and Civil Protection authorities, especially in 2015, when the hamlet suffered more visible damages and losses, even if these ones were not officially reported by the same authorities that failed to carry out prevention and risk mitigation plans; and seeks to educate local families and prevent tragedies as a result of the climate crisis that stems from  global overheating and increasingly threatens this village located on the shore of the Pacific.

Through the “Climate Monitoring” group, alerts of possible floods due to heavy rain or wind increase travel to the leaders of each sector. del Cid warns them to be alert when necessary, take what little they have and leave their homes to meet in “the court,” a space with a small brick house that serves as a communal house and shelter. This is how the civil protection system works in these communities at risk due to the threat of the impacts caused by the climate crisis.

The General Directorate of the Observatory of Threats and Natural Resources of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) of El Salvador confirmed on september, through a request for access to information via email, that this State portfolio has no action protocol for resilience or adaptation to the climate crisis in the country's coastal communities. This is why Bola de Monte had to take prevention and resilience into their own hands.

Resistance to abandonment

The committee is made up of 10 people and reports, through observation and collection of information by monitoring rain and sea levels, extreme wave phenomena. Although most cannot be compared to the one in 2015, they can and have still caused material and crop losses, mainly corn and bean, between 2017 and May 2023, according to del Cid.

In 2015, according to estimates from the National Territorial Studies Service (SNET, in Spanish), the waves reached a height of 2.2 meters and a speed of 60km/hour. This, when the normal parameters are 1.2m waves and speeds of 35km/hr. “I didn't know that, I had never seen it. My mother is 78 years old and she says that she was shocked because there were four days of strong waves here, something never seen before. Here where I am sitting, there were waves that reached the middle of the field”, says María del Cid under a palm tree.

And the swell did not only take away the houses of some inhabitants of the Bola de Monte hamlet: it also affected the El Botoncillo mangrove forest, named after the variety of mangrove Conocarpus erectus that grows there a few meters from the hamlet.

According to Mauricio Jandres, a researcher specialized in mangroves at the Center for Health Research and Development of the University of El Salvador (CENSALUD-UES, in Spanish), the 2015 waves dragged sandbanks more than two meters high into the mouth of the mangrove. This caused a “hydrological imbalance,” according to Jandres, because the mangrove could no longer receive fresh water from the arm of the Paz River, “it drowned in the salt water.” In 2015 alone, El Botoncillo lost about four hectares of mangrove forest, according to Jandres’ approximation because there is no official measurement of the ecosystem.

In the hamlet, the sea has already erased the coast lines that have divided the beach and the community for 50 years, destroying crops and homes. “And it does it little by little,” says del Cid, who has had to build a palm barrier in recent months. This is the new limit. “Let's see how much it respects it,” she says, laughing, referring to the sea. The committee not only monitors the swell: it also has its eyes on sea level rise.

A boat on the water.
This is what the mouth of the mangrove forest looks like. Since 2015, the salt water was stagnant due to the sandbanks that the sea dragged / Credit: Alexander López.

According to a study that Nature Climate Change published in 2020, El Salvador, with just 321 kilometers of coastline in the Pacific Ocean, could be among the countries that would lose up to 80% of their beaches due to sea level rise caused by the current climate crisis.

Mauricio Jandres, from CENSALUD-UES, estimates the region could face “an increase in sea level of six millimeters per year.” This rate of increase, says the researcher, not only puts human life in coastal areas at risk, but also the ecosystems that grow on the seashore: “Mangroves, for example, would be incapable of counteracting the rise in sea level, which would cause close to 90% to be in danger in the future. Mangroves function as a kind of ‘wall’ that resists storms in coastal areas. They also protect soils from erosion,” he said.

El Salvador also does not have a specific policy for adaptation to this crisis —the last time it updated the National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change was in 2019. For this report, an attempt was made through a WhatsApp message to contact the person in charge of Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources communications, Aarón Fagoaga, to ask if they have any other form of support for these vulnerable communities. Fagoaga responded that he would “make arrangements” in order to get the interview, but at the close of the investigation there was no further response.

Without government support, coastal communities are looking for a way to adapt to this crisis through community climate monitoring systems in vulnerable places such as the southern coastal area of ​​Ahuachapán. Disasters such as the 2015 swell made them determined to boost their resilience, meaning they aim to become more capable of adapting to the effects of a climate crisis that is here to stay.

In addition to constant monitoring of the sea, in Bola de Monte they also measure the amount of rain due to the high risk of flooding in the area. “I am one of the women who operates a pluviometer,” says María del Cid, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide a smile of pride. “Through WhatsApp, we collect data on how much rain has fallen in the upper, middle and lower areas,” she explains. From here, from the quantity data sent by other neighbors like del CidMaría, the alerts are sent out arise. For example, the red alert is activated when a maximum of 45 millimeters of rain falls in any of the sectors.

Another member of the committee is Elba Gallardo, a 22-year-old fisherwoman. Gallardois del Cid’sneighbor, and came to the committee thanks to her. “I walked behind them, seeing how they met, what they talked about, seeing that they were interested in taking care of the mangrove. And, then, I joined them,” says a smiling Gallardo under the shade of a palm tree.

Gallardo is currently the youngest on the committee. She joined when she was 19 years old and now, three years later, she holds the position of vice president within the board of directors. With pride, she says that it is made up of “more women than men,”adding that “we are four women and only one is a man.”

The committee meetings take place every 15 days under the shade of a leafy ceiba pentandra, on a vacant lot on the edge of a dusty street. From there, they discuss, between laughter and other topics, the climate crisis, crops, rising seas, home gardens and leadership. Thus, under this ceiba tree, they decided that del Cid would be the president for the next five years.

Gallardo is passionate about everything related to nature. She grew up fishing punches, which is a species of crab that is found only in shallow coastal areas, and in the mangrove swamp, mostly Aviccenia germinans, commonly known as istaten, from Bola de Monte. For “a couple of years,” says Elba, punches have begun to become scarce. And in deeper waters, the fish “hide”, she said, adding: “Now we don't fish like before. We have to find some solution to eat,” says the young fisherwoman.

Community organization, key to resilience

In addition to the monitoring committee, the community members are also participating in training with the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES, in Spanish). “These organized communities are in frequent training processes on adaptation to the climate crisis. They learn about sustainable agriculture, agroecological farming techniques and social leadership. This allows them to have a broader notion about the preventive measures they must take in the event of a natural or climatological phenomenon,” explains Miguel Urbina from UNES, which is the institution in charge of providing these training processes in alliances with institutions, mostly, from international cooperation.

From their homes, organized women, like del Cid and Gallardo, constantly generate scientific information, says Urbina, coordinator of sustainability processes in the southern area of ​​Ahuachapán of the Non-Governmental Organization Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES, in Spanish).

 This information arises from sea level monitoring, pluviometers, and dialogues between neighbors who report changes in rainfall. They are young women who are dedicated to fishing and agriculture and who, in addition, know the climatic panorama of the high, middle and low areas of their territories. “They are those who are on the front line when natural phenomena happen,” concludes Urbina.

For Urbina, the motivation of organized youth is the defense of the territories in which they live. Only in the southern area of ​​Ahuachapán, in other hamlets besides Bola de Monte, UNES counts 75 young people between 21 and 30 years old who make up the network of environmentalists.

Currently, UNES works with a community climate monitoring network that is distributed in four sub-basins: the Cauta River, the El Naranjo River, the El Aguacate micro-basin and the San Pedro Belén River. These are 22 rainfall stations, which UNES installed and which the locals monitor, which measure the temperature, humidity and the amount of rain that falls in the territory, in addition to the emergency protocols that each community has organized.

Urbina points out that heavy rains also produce losses in ecosystems due to floods different from groundswells. In the case of the lower part of the San Francisco Menéndez territory, these floods specifically affect the mangrove forests, which - as previously indicated - need a balance between freshwater and saltwater. Furthermore, torrential rains, extreme drought and swells, which are now more frequent and intense due to the climate crisis, also limit the food security and sovereignty of communities.

“That is something that has changed our way of life.” This is del Cid's definition of the term “climate crisis” and to express verbally how this crisis affects them, she takes help from her environment. She points out the weeds, the corn and bean crops that do not want to grow, the agrochemicals that are now necessary to force seeds to be born and the palm barriers that she had to stack in order to build a “wall” to contain that sea that grows and grows little by little. “This is climate change,” she says, arms outstretched under a scorching sun.

For Urbina, it is also necessary to work on risk prevention, through education, information generation, the creation of state protocols and plans. “In the end, it is the communities, the ones doing the job that state entities should do,” Urbina says.

del Cid’s cell phone has already received several notifications. It's time to meet. When asked if she receives a salary in exchange for this work she does on the weekend, and which is in addition to the work involved in fishing and agriculture, she answers that there is no such thing. “No, I don't get paid for this,” she says, letting out a laugh. Her work and that of their organized neighbors is voluntary. “I do it because it revives me, because I live here and because I want to leave something for the future,” she says. “I do it to protect us.”

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This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by MalaYerba in Spanish on December 11, 2023 and has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image:  A community next to the sea / Credit: Alexander López.

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