23/03/2012 – We travel on a dirt road surrounded by the breathtaking views of 3 majestic Guatemalan volcanoes, presiding over Lake Atitlán. Being so close to one of Guatemala’s most visited tourist attractions, it is striking to see how little of that tourism revenue has trickled down to improve the lives of nearby communities. In Sololá department, water systems are scarce and tarmac secondary roads almost inexistent. A few kilometres can take hours on bumpy and often muddy roads.
Nature here is powerful, and it tends to show it with unusual frequency. Active volcanoes spit lava, tremors occur constantly (4,200 have been registered since July 2011), and hurricanes pass by almost every season. “We were affected by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, then Stan in 2005, Agatha in 2010, and last year by Tropical Depression 12-E”, says Tomás Demetrio Mas Tambriz, planning director at Santa Catarina de Ixtahuacán municipality.
12-E was not a hurricane, but nowadays it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause massive damage. A simple low pressure system can generate accumulated rainfall of 350 mm in 72 hours. For ten days in October 2011 in Central America, this tropical depression dumped rainfall that surpassed the average for that period of the year by 200% to 300%. In countries like El Salvador, registered precipitation levels were higher than the historical levels reached during Mitch.
Houses were flattened, crops destroyed, latrines damaged and the already fragile water systems severely disrupted. It has been more than four months since the disaster, but part of the damage still shows. Everywhere you look, you see destroyed fields.
The car stops at the top of a steep hill where the road ends. ECHO’s humanitarian experts get out and walk for another hour in the bush before reaching a community. Aid still reaches remote places like this one. ECHO’s experts are here to monitor the assistance provided by the European Commission in the aftermath of Tropical Depression 12-E. €4 million were allocated to four countries –Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua- to help communities restore their houses and water systems, and to recover their ruined sources of food and income: their crops.
“The road was in such a bad shape that it collapsed with the rains. We were isolated for days. A lot of mud came inside the houses. Everything was destroyed, it was a disaster” says Dominga Guachiac Tzaput.
“We have been given milk, maize, rice, beans, and soap” adds her friend Manuela Guarchaj.
Humanitarian aid was provided in the field by the NGO Oxfam, one of ECHO’s partners. Oxfam is also helping a community that was living on a slope. The village was so badly damaged by the mudslides that the people had to move to an entirely different location, on land given by the municipality. They are literally starting from scratch.
“ECHO’s funding has allowed us to work in the post emergency context. We are not in the 72 hours after the disaster, but in the months after. This is a period in which you work not so much on emergency aid but on longer term needs and help to restore livelihoods,” explains Vladimir Castro, Oxfam’s 12-E emergency coordinator. “To give you an example: in the first 72 hours we would give bottled water, now we are helping them with water tanks and systems that last longer and serve more people with safer water.”
“We are concentrating on providing food aid, rehabilitating water systems, helping communities prepare themselves better for similar events in the future and giving farmers seeds so they can plant a new harvest”, says Ingrid de Loof, ECHO’s Central America Emergencies expert.
Ensuring that agricultural output is back on track is key after any disaster. This is especially important in a country like Guatemala where there is a high prevalence of chronic malnutrition which reaches up to 57% on average, and even 70% in some communities. Missing one harvest can exacerbate this alarming situation.
“I had maize planted here, but I lost everything in the 12-E storm”, farmer Antonio Guarchaj, a father of 8, explains. “We are getting seeds so I will be able to plant again”, he adds. Other households are being supported with poultry and hen-houses.
Humberto Castillo is 12-E Emergency Coordinador for Central America at CARE, one of ECHO’s partners providing relief in Guatemala. “Some people had some food stored that was not lost in the storm and it kept them going for the months immediately after. For these people, it is really 4 months after the tropical depression that they start to feel the pinch of not having another harvest. So this is why it is timely to deliver aid to them now”.
By Isabel Coello
Regional Information Officer for Latin America & the Caribbean