Imagine staring at your home of 16 years submerged underwater, watching your livelihood and possessions floating away and being powerless to do a single thing. This was the stark reality for Ana Joseph Fernandez during a period of non-stop torrential rain that led to extreme flooding in October 2011 that left 32 dead and more than 20,000 displaced in rural Ahuachapán, north of El Salvador. 

“I was completely homeless for 15 days, all four of my children became sick due to the contaminated water and I had no money to treat their illnesses.”

The flooding alone caused irreparable infrastructural damage to homes and the disasters that followed, included mudslides, with continued severe bad weather making it impossible for families to salvage anything from their homes. Maria De Chavez had her livestock washed away and did not have the economic means to re-build her home after the floods, meaning that she was forced to live with neighbours, where she is currently staying.

These women are part of a larger collective of 50 others known as AMIGA, which was founded as a support group for women affected by the floods. The women have set up a sustainable agricultural co-operative which ensures food security for their families and works on re-creating livelihoods that women like Ana and Maria lost to the floods. The benefit of forming a co-operative such as AMIGA is not only financial, but the women within the group provide one another with emotional support during trying times.

Joanna Munoz told the group that without the women of AMIGA reaching out to her, she and her family would almost certainly be facing a future without shelter, food and medical care. She was provided the necessary training and on hand support to create a small farm that would ensure food security for her family and sell on surplus produce, which enabled her to create a livelihood for herself.

During the floods, the smoke-and-mirrors tactics being deployed by the local government in power meant that only a select few were able to receive the necessary support during the aftermath. Aid was distributed according to which political party individuals were affiliated with at the time of flooding, meaning that opposing voters of political parties were discriminated against and left virtually destitute. 

Alberta De Sanchez lost everything to the floods and considers herself one of the lucky ones, due to her local church providing her family with basic shelter and medical aid, but her friends, she recalls were not so lucky, with some virtually cut off from the rest of the country for weeks without aid. Considering El Salvador receives three times more rainfall than the average country, my group were surprised to hear about the clear lack prevention for the very real threat of potential future flooding.

The women of AMIGA went on to explain that as a group they work on creating sustainable agricultural programmes that are linked with all 29 of the rural communities in Ahuachapán in order to educate locals on the importance of sustainability, alongside the importance of protecting themselves against re-living the traumatic experiences most of them have had to endure; and how to effectively utilise the land around them to avoid future natural disasters directly affecting them.

In addition to the work they carry out on a grass roots level, the women regularly meet up with one another as a form of added support to one another. The volunteers experienced this first hand at a gastronomic fair in the centre of Ahuachapán, we were put to work with the women selling their livestock and cultivated home produce to the general public. Alberta mentioned that this fair is a lifeline for the women affected by flooding in terms of it becoming a regular meeting point for them to re-live their experiences and provide one another with emotional support whilst making a living selling their stock. The day ended on a high with most of the delicious produce selling out, making for a noticeable profit that the women will be investing into buying a new supply of chilli seeds and a salsa dance-off between the women and the ICS volunteers!

By ICS volunteer Jelena Durdevic