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Insurance against the next Mitch

The people of La Masica are not richer, smarter or luckier than their neighbors in other municipalities of Atlantida, a department on Honduras' northern Caribbean coast that was pummeled by Hurricane Mitch in October. But unlike millions of other Hondurans, when disaster came knocking, they were ready.

La Masica, a rural municipality with 24,336 people, suffered no deaths in what turned out to be Central America's most devastating natural catastrophe in the past two centuries. It stood out as a striking exception in a country where over 5,600 people were killed by the massive flooding and landslides and where some 8,000 are still listed as missing.

How did the people of La Masica do it? They certainly received no favors from the hurricane, whose fury largely destroyed the area's social and productive infrastructure. What they did have was preparation. About six months before the hurricane struck, a pilot program was launched there by the Central American regional disaster prevention agency, CEPREDENAC, with support from Germany's aid agency GTZ. The program is part of a region-wide effort aimed at involving local communities in preventing and mitigating natural disasters.

When Mitch dumped the equivalent of one year of rain in less than one week on their territory, the residents of La Masica knew what to do. People in vulnerable areas were promptly evacuated, citizens were mobilized for rescue missions, food was distributed, and repairs begun on damaged schools.

Something else set this municipality apart: in the early warning and relief activities, women and men were involved on an equal footing. In a presentation before a workshop held during the May meeting of the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America in Stockholm (see our story "The means to build it better"), Mayra Buvinic, chief of the IDB's Social Development Division, described how La Masica's women took control of the early warning system after their male counterparts had left their posts, well, unmanned. In recognition of their pivotal role, La Masica's mayor subsequently hung a new sign in his office that reads "Everything's better with women's cooperation."

Workshop participants described other successful examples, including cases where Honduran farms and plantations that practiced agroforestry, terracing and other good management techniques reported far fewer landslides and less soil erosion from Mitch's rains than neighboring producers.

Sadly, however, these were exceptions in a region constantly threatened by natural hazards and plagued by underdevelopment (see article "Sweet profits, antique candy"). While calamities such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and landslides are unavoidable, their effects can be either magnified or mitigated by man. In Central America, population pressures, chaotic urbanization, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, massive deforestation and poor watershed management combine to make disasters even more destructive.

"Hurricane Mitch showed that ‘natural' disasters are often not purely natural but are influenced by man-made factors," Kofi Annan, the U.N.'s Secretary General, said in his inaugural speech at the Stockholm meeting. "Indeed, some of what was done in the name of progress -for example, clearing land for farms and homes-exacerbated the storm's effects. And much that was not done on the countries' social agendas left so many vulnerabilities that when nature struck, large numbers of people were rendered homeless, jobless, school-less and even more hopeless than before."

A question of location. A majority of Central Americans live in disaster-prone areas. In the cities, the poor tend to build shanties in high-risk, marginal places such as steep hillsides or flood plains. In rural areas, the demand for farming and grazing land has resulted in one of the world's highest rates of deforestation. The countries of Central America have not yet found a way to jointly manage the watersheds of rivers that cross national boundaries. On their coasts, natural buffers against hurricanes and tsunamis, such as mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs are deteriorating due to increased mariculture operations, unchecked tourism development and contamination caused by untreated sewage and runoff from pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Much of the damage caused by Mitch can be traced to poor land use practices, uncontrolled human settlement and the lack of adequate disaster preparedness. According to the U.N.'s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, about 75 percent of the losses of goods and services resulted from problems such as building houses too close to rivers or constructing roads and bridges in vulnerable places.

Making matters worse, Mitch set the stage for potentially greater disasters during this year's rainy season. Major rivers are still clogged with silt, which diminishes their capacity to absorb sudden surges in water levels. Many hillsides were stripped of vegetation, rendering them more fragile and subject to landslides.

"Given the current conditions, a new hurricane, or even a tropical storm, could set off an even greater disaster," said Mauricio Castro Salazar, executive director of the Central American Committee for the Environment and Development, based in El Salvador. "The people would not be ready for it because there simply has not been enough time to prepare." He added that displaced people are already returning to the high-risk areas where they had lived before Mitch.

One of the sad ironies of the Central American tragedy is that, even though these catastrophes are largely the consequence of poverty and underdevelopment, disaster prevention plans do not have to be expensive to be effective. Belize moved more than 30,000 people inland from its coast before Mitch reached the isthmus. Costa Rica, although not in the hurricane's path, sustained only four deaths caused by flash flooding triggered by the torrential rains, most of them were people who refused to heed to evacuation instructions. Even cash-strapped Cuba regularly manages to move people out of harm's way whenever a hurricane approaches the island.

Disaster prevention and mitigation was rarely factored into the development process in Central America, said Luis Rolando Durán, executive secretary of cepredenac, the regional disaster prevention agency.

"It has generally been regarded as an ad hoc endeavor," he told participants at the workshop. "In the worst-hit countries, the budget allocations for emergency management agencies barely cover their staff wages."

During the plenary sessions of the Stockholm meeting, Central American leaders vowed that this would change. The countries put forward plans to strengthen their national disaster prevention programs and included mitigation provisions in a wide range of projects in sectors such as infrastructure, farming, forestry and tourism.

Honduras, for instance, devoted an entire chapter of its national reconstruction plan to the management of natural resources and hazards. While arguing that no country could have weathered a catastrophe of Mitch's proportions, the Honduran document also recognized that man-made environmental degradation, weak institutions and poor planning made things much worse. To address those problems, it proposed programs designed to identify high-risk areas, monitor watersheds, reorganize the national emergency management system and strengthen municipal emergency committees.

Speaking at the donor's conference, Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores declared, "I want to stress this: we pledge to avoid building the same way and with the same levels of vulnerability, since that would only afford us fleeting relief from our wounds (while) keeping in place the conditions that ensure the recurrence and severity of natural disasters."

Together with such expressions of political will, other speakers underscored the fact that policy tools are available for environmental management and protecting the groups most vulnerable to both natural and man-made disasters. The meeting also showcased some encouraging trends, such as Central American governments' willingness to make civil society an active partner in the reconstruction. It also framed vulnerability reduction as an indispensable component of the efforts to make this region a better and safer place to live.

Nevertheless, some experts looked at the weather charts and saw trouble ahead. Even though the rainy season in Central America had already begun at the time of the Stockholm conference, cepre-denac's Durán said he found little evidence that risk mitigation measures were being included in the national reconstruction plans. At the same time, he acknowledged that governments are hampered by a lack of reliable data on which to base decisions about disaster prevention.

"This is a constraint, since you must juggle the urgency of rebuilding infrastructure with the availability of information to make it safer," Durán said. "Sadly, this is an unavoidable fact."

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