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Environmental Problems in El Salvador

With a total land mass of just 8,124 square miles, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. Like many of its’ neighboring countries, it possesses very few natural resources. Since the nation’s economy is based predominantly on agriculture, it’s no surprise that its’ citizens often experience “resource roller coasters”.

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In addition, its’ long history of inappropriate land tenure and ownership practices date all the way back to colonialism. Even more strikingly, “sixty percent of El Salvador’s population is expected to live in the capital by 2010. As a result, El Salvador has to deal with continuing environmental problems. The fact that the nation lies along the Pacific Ring of fire doesn’t help either, which subjects the country to frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. The environmental problems that El Salvador continually struggles with are deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, contamination and lack of bio-diversity. El Salvador is the second most deforested country in Latin American after Haiti. In fact, nearly eighty five percent of its forest has disappeared since the 1960’s.Today, less than 6,000 hectares are now considered to be primary forest. Deforestation in El Salvador occurs as a result of timber exploitation for fuel. The nation’s high population relies heavily on the collection of fuel wood and subsistence hunting and agriculture. Since the end of the 1990’s, the country’s deforestation rate has increased by eighteen percent. The environmental, social and economic effects of deforestation have been nothing short of devastating. To date, more than fifty percent of El Salvador isn’t even suitable for food cultivation.In addition, much of the country suffers from severe soil erosion. The massive deforestation that the nation has experienced has dislodged the top soil and has even changed the climate according to environmental experts. What used to be a heavily wooded region is now more like a desert. Deforestation is so severe in El Salvador that it has forced people into the capital city of San Salvador, where overcrowding has caused problems such as smog. “At least 11,000 Salvadoran children die every year because of respiratory ailments believed related to air pollution, according to one study. Although the El Salvadoran government has attempted to respond to the problem of deforestation, they have not been particularly successful. They have created deforestation laws, but due to lack of funds and management, the laws often go unenforced. In addition, soil erosion and infertility are quite prevalent in El Salvador. These problems stem mostly from poor agricultural practices. Farmers typically use a “slash and burn” farming method, which consists of cutting and burning down forests in order to use the areas for agriculture. This method destroys all vegetation and leaves the surrounding soil vulnerable to extreme erosion.Unfortunately, since it is becoming more and more difficult to find land that is suitable for cultivation, farmers have no choice but to do this. Farming is their livelihood and quite frankly they will do anything to survive. What’s even more disheartening is the fact that the land that is suitable for cultivation has already been bought to use for construction of maquilas. In some cases, soil erosion has even buried communities in landslides and floods have submerged large areas of flat land. The soil is also unable to retain humidity causing drought conditions in the dry season.Most agricultural soil has even been acidified due to the irrational use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and other forms of pollution. Luckily, the government has responded to this problem and is encouraging farmers to take advantage of improved agricultural technologies. These technologies include planting deep rooted grasses and trees on hillsides to control soil erosion. However, farmers should not expect much financial assistance to take advantage of these new technologies because the El Salvadoran government simply does not have much to give.Thirdly, water pollution is another environmental problem that plague El Salvador. Despite receiving six feet of rainfall each year, most of the nation’s water is highly contaminated. In fact, thousands are killed each year due to water contamination, many of whom are children. At the same time, most of the citizens of the nation cannot afford bottled water. After the twelve year civil war destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, poor areas became even poorer. Homes and water sources had been destroyed by militia during the war. After returning home, some citizens chose to hand dig wells in order to obtain drinking water.However, many others went to their nearest stream, river or pond to collect water. These unsafe and contaminated water sources caused many people to become ill with intestinal diseases. According to Ricardo Navarro, El Salvador’s government has failed to protect its’ most precious resource: “Farmers have cut down forests that used to store rain water. Ranchers have allowed their livestock to pollute rivers. Communities have put latrines too close to shallow wells. ” Others, such as Marisol Prima Ponza, who runs a government dispensary that tracks the health of 375 children in several communities, believe that things are improving. There have been fewer cases of diarrhea,” she says. “For example, from January to August of this year I have only recorded 17 cases. ” Ponza also added that these improvements are due to several projects that have been implemented to improve water conditions. El Salvador’s government can not claim that they have played a large role in any improvements though. In fact, sixty three percent of water improvement programs were financed through international loans and grants, twenty one percent through self-financing by ANDA and only sixteen percent with actual government resources.Many citizens and international groups alike have been putting pressure on the government to improve water conditions as well. In fact, March 22 is declared as World Water Day when thousands of people protest in the streets of San Salvador. They typically protest the four main components of the country’s water crisis: high cost of water, unjust distribution of water, contaminated water and environmental destruction. Despite some improvements, poor water sanitation continues to remain one of the main environmental problems of El Salvador. Another environmental problem that El Salvador must deal with on a daily basis is contamination.The nation’s soil is constantly being contaminated from the disposal of toxic wastes. Each day, El Salvador produces over two thousand metric tons of garbage. Over half of the garbage that is produced is disposed of illegally in open air dumps. In actuality, only two legal garbage dumps exist for the entire country to share. The whole country, especially the Greater San Salvador area contaminates a great deal of its garbage by “mixing organic with inorganic garbage, biodegradable or reusable materials with non-biodegradable or toxic waste. By doing this, many recycling opportunities are completely lost and the cost of recovering the recyclable materials would simply not be worth it. Unfortunately, the nation’s restrictions on any kind of waste disposal are quite lax and they do not provide people with the resources for proper disposal anyway. In addition, nearly half of the nation’s garbage is toxic waste which is harmful to human and environmental health. Factories and hospitals alike simply dump their garbage into nearby rivers and lakes which contaminates the water.Unfortunately, the response from the municipal government in San Salvador barely makes a dent in the problem. Nonetheless, if its model extended throughout the nation and made its way into the platforms of public officials as well as environmental organizations, then positive change would probably occur. For a country whose environment is badly deteriorating, this is a life or death situation and must be properly addressed. Garbage collectors themselves can be seen handling garbage with their bare hands on any given day, which subjects them to many types of infections.According to the garbage collectors themselves, there isn’t a very good communication flow between them and the environmental sanitation office. Many of the people that work at the mayor’s office are not even aware of a pilot project to separate garbage. In addition, the equipment that would be needed for the project would not even be affordable due to San Salvador’s poor economic conditions. Unfortunately, the mayor’s good intentions are simply not helpful without the proper funding and effort. Lastly, another environmental issue that affects El Salvador is the loss of bio-diversity.It’s not that the nation naturally lacks bio-diversity, but rather the result of many years of environmental abuse. In particular, the nation’s wildlife and native plant life are suffering due to soil degradation, poor water quality and subsistence hunting. Despite these problems, more than 508 species of birds, 121 mammals, 130 reptiles and amphibians, and over 2000 plant species were recorded in the nation in 1998. Even though these numbers have probably decreased since then due to the government’s lack of emphasis on natural resources training, they are still not devastating by any means.In fact, El Salvador encompasses over seven percent over the world’s total biodiversity. However, these plants and animal species are not going to save themselves. If the nation’s other environmental issues are not addressed then the distinction of some of these plants and animals is inevitable. The environmental problems in El Salvador are an important issue to the state because they all lead to others problems.For example, contamination has led to water pollution which has led to illness and people’s livelihoods depend on whether they are healthy enough to work. As mentioned several of times, the state has definitely not done enough to ddress the environmental problems in which they are suffering from. Even when they do address the problems and create plans to fix them, they usually lack the money to carry the plans through. Any money that they do have to fix the problem is typically obtained through international grant and loan programs, like the United Nations. Some improvements have been made in El Salvador, such as the integration of legal garbage dumps, but since only two exist, the improvements have not been immense. The environmental problems have weakened the economy and in turn, the weakened economy is what is preventing the problems from being fixed.It’s not that the elected officials of El Salvador do not have goals and visions for their state, but it’s that they can’t carry them through economically. Perhaps educating the citizens of El Salvador about how to care for the environment and farm correctly is one of the first steps. International groups also need to continue to put pressure on the state through protests, such as they did on World Water Day and their funding needs to continue. By improving their environmental problems, El Salvador has the ability to prosper more than anyone has ever even imagined.