Urban Poverty, Disasters, and Local Government (English version)

In san salvador, marginality is perpetuated by the fact that families do not own their own homes; they do not even rent them; nevertheless, their problems are the problems of the entire city, not only because of human solidarity, but also because of environmental issues. Photo by Hector Silva

Social Organization: A Look at San Salvador

By Héctor Silva

Sara Gutiérrez, a single mother and the only source of support for her four children, approached me and my two companions when I was running for mayor of San Salvador. “All of you candidates seek us out when you want our votes, but later you forget your promises,” she charged. I asked her, “And what is it that you most need from me if I’m elected?” She answered immediately, “You need to construct dikes to contain the river waters when it rains, so we don’t die next winter.” That reply gave me cause for thought about the hard reality that this woman faced every day, and the enormous responsibility that we would have if we won the elections.

Sara heads up one of the some 35,000 families who have migrated to the capital city of San Salvador in the last twenty years. Initially, people headed for San Salvador, fleeing the violence of twelve years of bloody war. Later, they migrated for economic motives. The rural-urban migration has increased massively in the last two decades, causing San Salvador’s population to increase almost 40% in that time.

The migrants have set up their homes closer and closer to the riverbanks and ravines that traverse the city. They construct their fragile dwellings out of tin sheeting and cardboard in spots that flood easily in the winter, when heavy rains cause the rivers to overflow. And in times of severe storms or hurricanes, their dwellings are often swept away.

I felt moved that Sara, in spite of living in conditions of absolute misery, set her priority on the construction of dikes necessary to prevent herself and her children from being killed the next winter. Literally, her priority was survival. For Sara and other families like hers, the construction of the dike was a matter of life and death.

The encounter with Sara took place at the beginning of 1997, when I was running as the opposition candidate for San Salvador mayor against the official candidate. At that time, the polls indicated that I had little chance of winning. Neither I nor Sara thought we would have a chance of actually acting on her concern about the following winter; she didn’t go into details about the situation and I didn’t ask.

After the meeting with Sara, I asked my two companions what we could do for her if we won. There were two different replies. On the one hand, Miguel, a longtime Communist Party member, replied, “We need to make sure that Sara and thousands more take to the streets to demand a response from the government for their conditions of misery.” On the other hand, Margarita, a fervent evangelical Christian, merely answered that we should pray, and the Lord would deliver.

Three months after the discussion, I became mayor of San Salvador, and Miguel and Margarita were elected to the municipal council; our challenge was to fulfill our promises to families like Sara’s.


When I took office in 1997, we found that San Salvador was filled with about 237 squatter communities with around 20,000 families living in conditions of extreme, high, and middle-level risk, isolated and cut off from the urban hub. The families living in those squatter communities made up twenty percent of San Salvador’s population. Most of them lived very near the rivers and ravines, on or below the slopes—areas prone to slides, avalanches and flooding. Increased migration had led to more precarious living. Moreover, the fact that these settlements were not connected to urban roads also meant that ambulances, fire engines and garbage removal services did not have access to them. Basic public services are unavailable to these communities.

This marginality is perpetuated by the fact that these families do not own their land; they do not even rent it. Therefore, they don’t pay taxes of any kind and have absolutely no incentive to invest in their property. Nevertheless, their problems are the problems of the entire city, not only because of human solidarity, but also because of environmental issues. If the flow of the river is impeded, it represents a danger for all city residents. Nevertheless, those who die are the residents of the shantytowns that line the river.

With the 1997 election, we took over leadership of a city that had suffered dramatic changes in land use, with insufficient regulation and planning in the face of increased poverty, marginalization and turmoil. We also found that a collapsed drainage system led to repeated flooding in different zones, primarily affecting the shanytowns and other poor communities.


Now that we were the government and not the opposition, we had a duty to fulfill our promises to Sara and develop the necessary infrastructure before the next winter. Thus began a long process to improve the lot of the poor communities that live along the riverbanks of San Salvador. That process is still ongoing.

The phenomenon of squatters’ communities has become so extensive that it is impossible to even contemplate moving so many people elsewhere. Moreover, experience has shown that when communities are transplanted in this manner, they form pockets of poverty that soon become a social powder keg.

The solution needs to focus on lessening the vulnerability of already established communities. That ambitious project of social organization and investment in infrastructure is currently underway. Nevertheless, some housing at very high risk does need to be relocated. The establishment of social organizational measures and the development of infrastructure are important, but as long as rural-urban migration continues to swell, they will not be sufficient.


With few resources and great demand, previous schemes of social organization had shown themselves to be insufficient and too paternalistic. We realized that if we were going to be effective, we had to be innovative.

The instruments of social organization that have proven to be most effective are the organization of emergency committees, the development of risk maps, and participatory budgeting.

An immediate result with much potential is the formation of emergency committees made up of community members responsible for preparations to respond to emergency flooding or earthquakes. While the committees often ended up assuming other tasks, importantly, the existence of such groups of community leaders was crucial for such socially-sensitive tasks as moving at-risk households, organizing community efforts, and constructing risk maps.

Community members sketched relief maps under the guidance of the emergency committees. The final product was a map with simple icons that indicated such things as the flow of the rivers; how this flow gets altered by torrential rains; which houses ought to be evacuated; the location of emergency shelters; and other landmarks. But beyond simply serving as guides, the maps also made community residents more aware, bringing them together around the subject of emergencies and encouraging them to discuss priorities and distribute responsibilities.

Another key element in achieving direct, effective and permanent participation was allowing people to take part in the decision-making process concerning the city budget. The inspiration came from a similar project in several Brazilian municipalities with which we had ongoing relations. In the case of San Salvador, the municipal council determines the amount of resources available. each year and then distributes a portion to each of the seven districts throughout the city. The communities were encouraged to organize themselves and discuss how the money should be spent in each of the districts. And the municipal council agreed to respect the priorities established by the communities.

Invariably, construction to protect housing from the dangers of floods and earthquakes took priority over everything else. Initial participation in this process was almost entirely limited to the poorest residents for whom municipal money was the only way to achieve the desired infrastructure that represented for them the literal difference between life and death the following winter.

In the six years between 1997 and 2003, about US$10 million was spent on infrastructure, thus increasing chances of survival in the face of natural disaster. The successful development of the process then motivated the middle class sector to participate, thus sparking an interesting process in which the middle class’ desire for parks and sports venues had to be balanced against the needs of the poorest. At times, this led to strong discussions and even heated arguments. In absolute numbers, the middle-class sector is smaller than the poor, but they pay more in taxes towards the municipal budget. El Salvador and Cuba are the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere that do not have property taxes. Therefore, the available municipal funds come for the most part from taxes on businesses, paid by the middle and upper classes.

Processes such as participatory budgeting have the enormous advantage that the priorities for spending are set through decisions that seek a consensus from the start, even though this means very long sessions of discussion with the community. In the end, it must be decided if priority is to be given to the construction of a dike or a park. Oftentimes, that decision is complicated by the fact that those who seek the construction of dikes pay a smaller amount in taxes, while those who seek the building of a park pay more in taxes, but also don’t have their lives at risk. Once the decision is finally made, however, it receives all the necessary social support.

As a result of the implementation of these processes of participatory decision making, the poor communities have come to accept the payment of municipal fees for some services. Moreover, with the experience that communities have acquired through the participatory budget, they have achieved significant qualitative advances. This is what happened in El Garrobo, one of those communities flooded every year with the arrival of winter.

The community of El Garrobo in the southeast part of San Salvador decided to apply its budget toward modifying the structure of a bridge that had a very small hydraulic flow, causing waters to flood housing and on more than one occasion killing community residents. Both the poorest members of the community and their middle-class neighbors accepted that for a two-year period, all the municipal funds assigned to the community would be guarded for the purpose of fixing the bridge.

The “Integral Recuperation of Critical Areas” is a social process strengthened by citizen participation, which translates into concrete results contributing to the physical well-being of depressed and high-risk zones.

In the development of these social processes, the role of local government is as an active but impartial facilitator. These processes should never be used for partisan political benefits.

The real test of fire for what we had done in San Salvador came with Hurricane Mitch. In spite of the intensity of the natural phenomenon, there was only one human death to mourn. And while every single life is important, this loss stood in sharp contrast with earlier tolls. It was an advance.

Another unexpected result was the increase in demand for municipal spending on infrastructure, and the accompanying battle for imposing the necessary taxes.

Not everything has been resolved; it’s difficult to advance without confronting such sensitive issues as the payment of more taxes. But for now, Sara can be more certain that she and her children will survive the next winter.

Héctor Silva is a medical doctor and former Mayor of San Salvador. He is presently a Visiting Fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He can be reached at hsilva@fas.harvard.edu.