Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

Agatha Exposes Central America’s Many Vulnerabilities

Thelma Mejía and Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jun 3 2010 (IPS) - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which form the so-called Central American Northern Triangle, have many weak points when it comes to natural disasters. The were exposed once again this week by tropical storm Agatha, which claimed nearly 200 lives and left millions of dollars in infrastructural damage.

The combination of poverty and the lack of land-use regulation resulted in another regional catastrophe that hit the poorest the hardest. Many live on unstable hillsides or riverbanks — zones that were already labelled “high risk” to the effects of heavy rains or earthquakes.

According to initial figures from the three countries, 156 people died in Guatemala, 18 in Honduras and 11 in El Salvador as a result of Agatha.

In Guatemala, the storm, which had dissipated by May 30, damaged more than 24,000 homes, affecting more than 400,000 people. The search continues for some 100 people who disappeared in floods or landslides.

States of emergency were declared in both Honduras and El Salvador, with at least 30,000 people left homeless.

José Escribá, of the Guatemalan Geological Society, says the lack of effective land-use regulation is the main cause of this latest disaster.

“There are no serious policies to determine where the population should be situated. Everyone thinks that they can live anywhere they like, but these tragedies prove just the opposite,” Escribá told IPS.

He believes that this region — which faces natural threats from hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activity — needs strict policies that demarcate areas for housing, industry, forests and other natural areas. Governments also should relocate the poorest families to safer areas, because most lack the means to do so themselves, he said.

Guatemala, with a population of about 13 million, is one of Latin America’s poorest countries. Half of its people live below the poverty line, while 17 percent are considered indigent, according to the United Nations.

Walter Wintzer, head of preparedness and response at the Coordination Centre for Natural Disaster Prevention in Central America, told IPS that poverty is a determining factor in a catastrophe.

“Someone who doesn’t have the money to buy land in a safe place will settle on a hillside,” he said, adding that no country in Central American has effective land-use laws to prevent this from occurring.

Wintzer noted three fundamental aspects for preventing and mitigating natural disasters, but stressed that resources are also essential for dealing with the emergencies when they happen.

In addition to standardised land-use policies for house construction, he believes it is important to begin formal training in primary and secondary schools so the region’s children and young people have greater awareness about disaster prevention.

Thirdly, he said, a political commitment is needed from governments to apply the laws and use the information they already have on risk mitigation.

The Coordination Centre for Natural Disaster Prevention in Central America is an inter-governmental regional body that belongs to the Central American Integration System.

Agatha has caused additional problems for the people of the Northern Triangle. The heavy rains washed away crops, driving up prices for vegetables and basic grains, which will worsen the area’s food crisis, warn UN agencies.

Tegucigalpa Mayor Ricardo Álvarez told IPS that many lives had been saved. However, he acknowledged, “since Hurricane Mitch (in 1998), the Honduran capital — one of the areas hit hardest — was still extremely vulnerable.”

Hurricane Mitch claimed more than 10,000 lives, while the 2005 tropical storm Stan left several hundred dead, not to mention the millions of people in the region who lost their homes and belongings.

Carlos Sabillón, a natural disaster expert in Honduras, said the Central American countries need to prepare joint regional strategies for prevention and mitigation. He expressed particular concern because the hurricane season — Jun. 1 to Nov. 30 in the Atlantic, May 15 to Nov. 30 in the Pacific – – is just getting under way.

The region’s fragility in the face of hurricanes was made clear by the destruction of Mitch 12 years ago, he said.

Agatha caused serious damage to infrastructure in the three countries, the result of landslides and flooding.

Guatemala suffered a double blow from nature in the last week, with the May 27 eruption of the Pacaya volcano, south of the capital. One journalist was killed and Tegucigalpa was covered in ash. The airport was shut down until Tuesday.

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