Lempa River

Lempa River


Lempa River (Río Lempa) is a 320 km long river in Central America. Its sources are located in western Guatemala in the Sierra Madre range near the town of Esquipulas. The river flows southwards, flowing shortly through a corner of Honduras. It then enters to El Salvador at a small city of Citalá that is located in the department of Chalatenango. It flows downward about 200 miles (320 kilometers) through El Salvador and empties to the Pacific Ocean of the department of San Vicente. thereby affecting the coastal and fishing resources of the country. Its basin covers 49% of El Salvador. In contrast, only 4.9% of Honduras and only 2.3% of Guatemala lie in the basin. 48% of the Salvadoran population lives in cities, towns, and villages that are located in the Lempa River basin, including the capital city of San Salvador. The Lempa is one of the longest rivers in Central America and the region’s largest source of fresh water flowing into the Pacific Ocean. It is one of only three rivers in Central America that is shared by more than two countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).


El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated of the Central American countries. Its industrial development has been seriously affected by a shortage of electric power. A plan has been submitted by the Harza Engineering Company, for the ultimate development of 75,000 kilowatts of generating capacity at the Chorrera Guayabo site. Transmission of the power to all load centers of the reservoir will provide 128,000 acre feet of effective storage. The report recommends the initial installation of only 30,000 Killowatts and delivers the power through two separate 115,000 volt transmission lines to the San Salvador load center for wholesale disposal to the various utility systems through their existing and proposed interconnections. According to the report, the power market is expected to absorb the entire output of the Guayabo installation, 182,000,000 kilowatt hours per annum, by the time plant has been in operation five years. Three hydroelectric dams located in the basin generate 37% of El Salvador’s electricity. The construction of El Tigre dam on the Lempa River, which forms a border between Honduras and El Salvador, has unleashed a wave of contradictory opinions. Some claim there will be a loss of sovereignty over natural resources, while others say the resulting reservoir will prevent another war between the two countries, this time over water.

The first efforts towards building this 1.5-billion dollar hydroelectric mega dam, which would be 100 meters tall and flood 72 square kilometers has began.

The idea to build the dam, which will have the potential to supply energy to 70 percent of the Salvadoran population, emerged in 1991. But it was not until April 16, 2006 that Presidents Manuel Zelaya of Honduras and Antonio Saca of El Salvador formalized the decision. According to Salvador Zúñiga, of the Honduran Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), the megaproject would displace some 20,000 people, although the government estimates put the total at around 5,000.

Another importance of Lempa river is that El Salvador is extremely dependent on this river for irrigation.


The Lempa River is the most environmentally damaged international basin in Central America. Several studies (quoted by USAID/CCAD/CATIE2001) in 2002 documented the pollution of the basin’s surface and underground waters with harmful chemicals and heavy metals, such as arsenic, boron, iron, mercury, lead, and potassium, which make water unsuitable for domestic use or irrigation and threatens flora and fauna. Industry and agriculture, the main sources of chemical contamination in the Lempa River basin, release pesticides, fertilizers, and byproducts from coffee production, sugarcane processing, distilleries, textile mills, slaughter houses, battery makers, and leather processors

USAID/CCAD/CATIE stated that organic pollution, particularly from the discharge of toxic untreated septic water, is also common. 68% of El Salvador’s septic water is not treated. Similarly, 16 out of 19 Guatemalan districts in the basin leave their septic water untreated.

El Salvador suffers the greatest impact from the Lempa River’s deterioration which is caused for its downstream location. The damage is magnified by El Salvador’s dependency on the river.

As estimated by CNDA data for El Salvador indicated that 90% of surface water is considered polluted by untreated effluents, agrochemicals, industrial waste, and a high quantity of sediments.

The Lempa River remains severely degraded by sediment, agricultural runoff, and solid and liquid waste. According to CNDA governments should devote more resources to develop collaborative management strategies for the conservation of this valuable resource Lempa River.

The new management program for the upper Lempa River basin has the potential to generate mechanisms that are capable of improving the river’s water quality while simultaneously promoting sustainable development. However, the design and implementation of an integrated program will require powerful leadership which could most naturally be provided by El Salvador, since it is the main beneficiary of positive change in the upper river basin. With proper guidance, the new management program has a good chance of reversing the damage to the river and creating a better life for the people who depend on it.

Land Degredation

As a consequence of extensive deforestation for farming (especially on hillsides and in mountainous areas), commercial logging and the extraction of firewood and timber for domestic purposes, and a general failure to apply soil conservation and land management techniques, land degradation is becoming a crisis. As pointed out by Leonard (1987), the Pacific side is more damage because it has more erosive soil, more concentrated and intense rainfall, areas without natural vegetation cover, steeper watershed slopes, and a higher concentration of people. In addition, seasonal burnings occur more regularly in the tropical dry lands on the Pacific side. El Salvador faces the most serious crisis in Central America, because most of its cultivated land is situated on steep slopes that are highly subject to soil erosion; the lower slopes of Montecristo (which is part of the Trifinio area) suffers from the worst soil erosion in El Salvador.

Urban Expansion

Rapid urban expansion in the highland plateaus of Central America, which include some of the most fertile soils and flattest lands in the region, is not creating an absolute shortage of land. However, the land adjacent to many growing urban areas in Central America is among the most fertile in the region, and urban sprawl from growing cities reduces agricultural land. In addition, the unplanned growth of cities and motorized traffic leads to air, soil, and water pollution. According to CCAD, approximately 80% of Central America’s municipal sewage is discharged, untreated, into rivers and other water resources. The problem of solid waste is also compounded by urbanization and economic growth. Conservatively, Central America produces some 19,000 tons of waste each day, of which only 50% is collected. The rest is simply discarded, even into rivers, bays, and coastal areas. Solid and liquid waste dumping is one of the two greatest causes of soil contamination in Central America; the other is indiscriminate use of agricultural chemicals.

As stated by Leonard from CCAD, deforestation causes soil to erode rather easily from this sheer terrain, thereby contributing large amounts of sediment to most of the region’s fresh water streams, rivers, and lakes, as well as to coastal bays and estuaries. These sediment loads can hinder government efforts to regulate and harness stream flows for agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, urban consumption, and other economic opportunities. In addition, most rural areas and many urban areas lack treatment facilities for domestic waste, posing major health problems for downstream populations that use streams and rivers for washing, bathing, and drinking. Thus, the major threats to Central America’s water quality are agricultural runoff, the high levels of suspended sediment loads from soil erosion, and fecal matter contamination from urban sewage, rural latrines, and septic tanks.


Proposal to build a hydroelectric dam on a river between Honduras and El Salvador raises the common tensions between large infrastructure projects and the disruption to the lives of local landowners. Interstate relations between El Salvador and Honduras have had their ups and downs, oscillating between periods of peace and armed conflict. The two countries went to war in 1969 over a disputed boundary, but in 1982, they signed a peace treaty and took the dispute to the International Court of Justice, which ruled on the dispute in 1996. Despite this settlement, difficult regional issues remain, according to Granados (2002). First, there are lingering disagreements about sections of the border between El Salvador and Honduras. Also, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador continue to argue over fishing rights in the shared Fonseca Gulf. Considering all of the above, El Salvador’s dependence on the Lempa River and environmental degradation clearly stand out as the two factors most likely to lead to conflict. If persistent environmental degradation threatens hydroelectric power generation and water resources in El Salvador, officials may demand action or compensation from their upstream neighbors, which in turn could generate tension among the countries.


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