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San Salvador: the dangers of volcanic landslides 17 April 2009

Posted by admin in El Salvador, natural hazards, San Salvador.
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San Salvador volcano (photo by Rick Wunderman, 1999, Smithsonian Institution).
San Salvador volcano, El Salvador, with the city of San Salvador in the foreground. Picture by Rick Wunderman, 1999 (Smithsonian Institution). [source]

When we think of the hazards presented by volcanoes, eruptions naturally come to mind: but volcanoes don’t have to erupt to be lethal. San Salvador volcano (or Quetzaltepec) in El Salvador, a complex compound volcano with a summit elevation of 1893 metres has a long history of violent eruptions, but has not erupted since 1917. The capital city of El Salvador, also called San Salvador, stands at the foot of the volcano, and as it has grown it has encroached increasingly upon the volcano’s slopes. As a result, any eruption of San Salvador volcano would have very serious consequences. Even without eruptions, however, the instability of the volcano’s slopes presents the city with another serious hazard: landslides.

The Salvadorean newspaper Diario Co Latino reports this week that community leaders from around San Salvador are calling on the government to recognize the hazard posed by volcanic landslides and declare a state of emergency for the area north-east of the volcano, between San Salvador and San Vicente volcanoes. They recall that a 1934 landslide from the latter volcano killed an unknown number of people in the village of Tepetitan, and that in 1982 heavy rainfall triggered a landslide on the flanks of San Salvador’s El Pichaco peak (on the right in the picture above) which descended more than 4 kilometres from its source and swept into the north-western part of the city, destroying homes and killing 300-500 people. There have been further potentially dangerous landslides in January 2001 and October 2008, when a large landslide took place which could have caused a similar disaster to that of 1982, if the debris flow had not taken a different course during its descent.

With this hazardous history in mind, along with other even deadlier examples of volcanic landslides such as Casita (October 1998, more than 2000 people killed), the concern expressed by the San Salvador community leaders is understandable. They are petitioning the national government for a thorough scientific survey of landslide-prone areas, improved monitoring and mitigation works, and the relocation of communities particularly at risk from landslides.

Piden declarar ‘Estado de Emergencia’ en volcán de San SalvadorDiario Co Latino, 15 April 2009

Global Volcanism Program: San Salvador – summary information for San Salvador (1403-05=)
Global Volcanism Program: San Vicente – summary information for San Vicente (1403-07=)
Volcano Hazards in the San Salvador Region – USGS report, 2001, available at the CVO website
Volcano Landslides and their Effects – USGS Volcano Hazards Program

The Volcanism Blog