The hurricane of poverty

Joaquín Rivery Tur

THE row of cardboard, tin and wooden shacks lining the banks of the Montagua River stand in an act of defiance by those who have been repeatedly warned of the need to move elsewhere. The riverside was like a grave.

You could ask them a thousand times and the response would always be the same: “And where would we go?” The poverty-stricken neighborhoods alongside the river are not caprice; they are the direct consequence of the lack of resources of a large part of the population in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador…

That very same cause is obliging them to construct their shantytowns on mountainsides or at the foot of hills that are completely barren due to the deforestation caused by the inhabitants themselves. Why? Because what else are they going to cook with?

The years go by and suddenly, a tropical storm with heavy rainfall causes the river to burst its banks, it overflows and the force of the flood sweeps away a large number of flimsy shacks that were totally unable to withstand the force of the chaos.

On the bare hillsides, the water softens the mud to such a degree that very soon, tons and tons of sludge slides down on top of the shacks and buries dozens of people.

The reason why 158 people died and 101 disappeared in Guatemala after Tropical Storm Agatha hit the country was not because of the rains or flooding; it was the poverty meted out to those who didn’t even have the opportunity to move far from death and disaster and the misery that forces them to once again build their shacks in the same dangerous places where they were recently destroyed.

The tropical storm that struck Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras on May 30 immediately degenerated into a weak tropical depression, but left a mantle of rainfall that pummeled Central America.

If we compare this storm to Hurricane Mitch, Agatha did not have one twentieth of the force of that meteorological monster, which left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them in Nicaragua.

With this storm, 180 people died in those three countries but that was not the worst of it.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) warned that those affected by the storm and the eruption of the Pacaya Volcano (because prior to the rains came the ashes from that eruption with their incidence of respiratory disorders), could contract illnesses because of the vulnerability of their homes and their precarious healthcare situation.

Specialists from this UN-affiliated organization have expressed serious concern at the potential appearance of cholera and dengue cases.

PAHO representative Pier Paolo Balladelli noted that contaminated water, humidity, overcrowding and poor sanitation could cause outbreaks of diarrhea, cholera and dengue, according to a report by the Italian news agency ANSA.

Another problem related to the poverty of the victims of the two disasters is the food shortage provoked by the loss of harvests already estimated as insufficient, which will affect at least 136,000 families in the eastern region of the country.

Meanwhile, every year the developed countries persist in reducing the amount of aid allocated for development in poor countries and none of them have agreed to donate 0.7% of their Gross Domestic Product, peanuts to them, to that objective.

Today, the legacy left to the Guatemalan authorities is: close to 89,000 people taking refuge in shelters, 142,000 evacuees, 61,000 who have suffered material losses, 497 damaged schools… and the list continues.

On the La Voz Mundo website, analyst Manfredo Marroquín confirmed that the situation “is influenced by the levels of poverty existing in Guatemala; people are living in places that are increasingly more vulnerable and the state lacks the capacity to establish preventative measures, let alone provide a rapid response. In places where there is a greater concentration of wealth, there haven’t been any disasters, because these have a better infrastructure.”

The situation has provoked tremendous concern over the fact that Agatha was the first weak tropical storm in a season predicted to be extremely active.

A UN report picked up by BBC Mundo highlights the examples of countries with scant resources such as Cuba, that have managed to dramatically reduce the number of deaths caused by natural disasters thanks to the positive operation of measures to protect and defend the population. Salvation lies in taking precautions.


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