CENTRAL AMERICA: Caught in the Rain Without an Umbrella

  • by Danilo Valladares (guatemala city)
  • Inter Press Service

Over 400,000 Guatemalans were affected by Agatha, which tore through Central America May 29-30, 2010, taking 150 lives.

In El Salvador and Honduras, a further 30,000 people were affected by the disaster, which destroyed subsistence crops, bridges, houses and roads in areas where a majority of the population is poor.

A year after the catastrophe, these countries remain geographically and economically vulnerable to natural disasters, made worse by the fact that the infrastructure damaged by Agatha remains, for the most part, in ruins.

In Guatemala, for instance, only 9.6 percent of the infrastructure destroyed by Agatha has been rebuilt, because of lack of resources, according to the 'national transformation commission' responsible for reconstruction.

Meanwhile the rainy season, which in Central America lasts from May to September, is bringing with it the fear of new disasters.

'I need at least a few roofing sheets, because every rainy season everything floods around here and we have to walk through the water,' said Peneleu, who along with her four children was evacuated last year from her home, where they were trapped in the torrent of mud and water caused by Agatha.

But what have Central American countries, with their geological faults, rivers, volcanoes and mountains, done to prepare for these climate phenomena?

Francisco Ruiz, of the Guatemalan Society of Structural and Seismic Engineering (AGIES), told IPS the government has worked hard at rebuilding the damage and has also strengthened risk prevention, but acknowledged that it would 'never be enough.'

He cited, for example, the introduction in 2010 of a structural safety code for buildings and infrastructure, a compendium of technical construction standards to ensure the safety of buildings in cases like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

'Look at developed countries like Japan, which has invested in design and prevention and has the best engineers, and see what happened,' he said, referring to the Mar. 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated entire towns in that country.

But in Guatemala, much more could be done to improve risk prevention, according to Ruiz, 'like organising people ahead of disasters, as well as having more professional people participating in that work.'

In neighbouring Honduras, the situation a year after tropical storm Agatha is similar.

'There has not been much progress, but I could highlight better coordination between government agencies and civil society, the strengthening of local and regional emergency services and the rebuilding of some infrastructure works,' Patricia Méndez of the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations told IPS.

In terms of prevention, things are not much better.

'Not much action has been taken on zoning, an early recovery plan, budgeting for risk management or building codes, and there is little political will to do so,' she complained.

None of the countries in Central America possesses a zoning law to prevent, among other things, building houses on the slopes of river valleys and mountains, a common practice in this impoverished region of 43 million people.

Roberto Cruz, of the rescue services group Comandos de Salvamento in El Salvador, told IPS that 97 percent of the Salvadoran population lives in high-risk situations, exacerbated by the successive devastations caused by hurricane Mitch (1998) and tropical storms Stan (2005) and Agatha (2010), which claimed thousands of lives throughout Central America.

In response, the Comandos provide disaster prevention training in 45 of El Salvador's 262 municipalities, while 'the government has only talked' about the problem, Cruz said.

However, he acknowledged that leftwing Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes created a secretariat for vulnerability reduction and risk management, which has 50 million dollars available for emergencies.

The new agency will absorb the National Civil Protection Directorate, hitherto responsible for emergency and disaster work.

Cruz said the government has offered support to those affected by Agatha and previous disasters, but added that it 'is not enough' given the magnitude of the damages caused.

In Nicaragua, the situation is no different to that of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

'When we were hit by Agatha, the water level in lake Xolotlán (or lake Managua, which bathes the capital city) rose so much that local people had to be evacuated. Some of them are still living in emergency shelters,' Efraín Leal of the Humboldt Centre, a Nicaraguan civil society organisation, told IPS.

Progress in rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the storm 'is similar to that of Guatemala,' he added.

Leal worked at a project in the Coco river basin in northern Nicaragua with indigenous communities that had lost 80 percent of their maize and rice crops to Agatha.

'From December 2010 until March this year, they were given seeds and tools, and the project was successful because now these people have basic grains to eat,' he said.

In spite of the efforts made, Nicaragua remains vulnerable to natural disasters. 'Climate phenomena affect us the most; meanwhile the country does not even have a zoning law to regulate where people live and where they farm,' said Leal.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service