Mitch teaches costly conservation lesson


Hurricane Mitch ripped the heart out of Tegucigalpa. All along the river that twists through the city’s mountain setting, storm-driven floods wrought devastation.

Rushing torrents in waterways that normally are little more than streams tore apart sturdy buildings as if by explosion and stripped family homes from their foundations.

The destruction on the river Choluteca and its tributaries is at the center of the lessons that Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and the rest of Central America must heed in the aftermath of Mitch. Even as the long hunt went on for bodies buried in the mud and wreckage, people had begun examining how some of the hurricane’s worst damage could have been avoided.

“When you get disasters of this size, it serves as a wake-up call,” says Mario Membreño, a former minister of public works for Honduras.

The astounding amount of rain dumped on Honduras—as much as 25 inches a day—inevitably would have caused extensive loss of life and property, of course. But its effect need not have been so overwhelming had better conservation measures been applied beforehand.

The alarm bell rang loudest in the capital—a victim of its degraded environment, poor planning and poverty in the rest of the country that has driven people to seek shelter in the city.

Henry Merriam, a former mayor of Tegucigalpa, recalls that as far back as 1979, during his term of office, authorities commissioned a flood prevention and river management study. Prompting it were worries that the fast growing city was heading for problems if it didn’t take better care of its riparian environment.

The study pointed to problems including construction in river margins, lack of attention to watercourses and drainage channels, and increasing soil erosion. Its recommendations were never implemented, inaction that would cost the city dearly when Mitch struck nearly 20 years later.

Poor immigrants to the city, where development is constrained by tortuous geographical and geological conditions, had built homes and workplaces in many dangerous areas, such as low-lying river plains and steep hillsides.

Tegucigalpa has mushroomed in recent years due to lack of opportunities in the countryside, says federal lawmaker Jack Arévalo. “There was an influx of people into the city,” he says. “They chose areas where they had least risk of being kicked out.”

Unfortunately many of those areas also presented the greatest risk of being swallowed up in a natural disaster.

During previous heavy rain this year, a deadly landslide in the steep ravine of the Quebrada del Sapo prompted the city’s late mayor, César Castellanos, to step up efforts to depopulate similar danger zones.

Such areas naturally were among the hardest hit by Mitch. The Soto neighborhood, where slope stability problems were outlined in the 1979 study, disappeared into the river in an enormous landslide.

Mayor Castellanos, who was seen as a figure capable of pushing through reforms in the city, was killed in a helicopter crash as he surveyed the damage. But encouragingly, others already are responding to such clear and tragic failures of urban planning.

President Carlos Flores introduced a law to forbid reconstruction in unsafe areas. The law declares sites close to waterways or prone to landslides Uninhabitable Zones.

To comply, whole towns, such as Moralica, will have to be moved. Downstream from the capital, Moralica was almost buried under the mud Mitch made.

“We are only going to allow building in areas where technical studies permit it,” says Arévalo, an engineer who headed the legislative commission that drafted the law. “Mitch has made us realize that we have to begin to organize and to plan.”

The law alone will not solve Honduras’ zoning problems, officials admit. The country also desperately needs a campaign to make it stick, persuading people not to return to locations highly susceptible to flood damage.

“The government will not allow the people to go back to the same places. These are fragile zones that we will have to keep an eye on to make sure there are no further lives lost,” Finance Minister Gabriela Nuñez says.

Joint action by the legislature, executive branch and local governments will be necessary to keep people from building on river banks and in flood plains, says Congressman Ramón Villeda. He says Congress will eliminate taxes on construction materials for families who rebuild dwellings in approved neighborhoods.

“There has to be a social housing program for reconstruction. We can’t return to anarchy, tolerance and disorder,” he says, referring to previously lax building codes and enforcement.

Less apparent, however, is authorities’ strategy for responding to another contributing and longer-term factor—the degradation of the Choluteca’s watershed in the area outside Tegucigalpa.

On every green hillside in the mountainous areas of southern Honduras, wide brown gashes show where landslides bore down on coffee plantations and subsistence plots of corn and beans.

Jenny Suazo, who works on watershed management issues for Environment, Society and Economy Consultants in Tegucigalpa, points out that pre-existing Choluteca Basin conditions contributed to the loss of property. The basin is in a double bind: Its riverbanks should receive special protection because its fast run-off rate propitiates flash flooding, but instead they are overrun by high-density settlement.

“It is where there has been most intervention and loss of protection to the watershed,” says Suazo. “There is high demand for space because of the population.”

In the 3,160-square-mile (7,900-square-km) watershed, only 960 square miles (2,400 square kms) are protected by trees and shrubs. Another 1,440 square miles (3,600 square kms) should be planted to protect against soil erosion and mudslides, she says.

The 1979 study commented on the lack of ground cover, saying, “The present sparse cover of grasses and other low vegetation is inadequate to prevent the substantial soil erosion which is now taking place.”

Lots of that soil wound up knee-deep in people’s houses.

“Mother Nature settled scores with Hondurans for having robbed river courses and cut down forests,” Villeda says.

Besides preventing erosion, trees and other plants act “like a sponge,” helping to soak up rainfall, Suazo says. “When they are not there, the flow of the river is less regulated.”

Downstream from Tegucigalpa, a reforestation and soil retention program was undertaken with international aid in areas affected by flooding from Hurricane Fifi in 1974. Its tree farm has become a successful business for the local people, who export wood products to neighboring Nicaragua, she says.

Upstream from the capital, on the Guacerique River, which feeds into the Choluteca, another internationally financed project has encouraged farming in terraces to increase soil retention. But nearby, harmful, outmoded agricultural practices are still in use. Many more soil conservation experiments are needed, according to Suazo.

Manuel Zelaya, minister of the Honduran Social Investment Fund, estimates nearly two-thirds of Honduras has been deforested. Households that burn wood for fuel are a major reason; they use seven times as much wood as industry, he says. Rudimentary slash-and-burn farming also is widely practiced. “Now we are paying for it,” he says.

“I do not think the poor are responsible. I think they are some of the victims of the social failure,” he adds. “They slash and burn, and because no one gives them a solution, they go on doing it.” He advocates a national forestry policy “suitable for the reality of Honduras.”

Coordinating policy in this area is a huge challenge. Suazo says the Environment Ministry, created in 1993, is still too weak to exert sufficient pressure for change in agriculture or forestry. Meanwhile, vested interests in politics and industry are strong, says Zelaya. He adds: “There is one group that no one dares to touch with a rose petal—the voters.”

Right now the priority is to replace what is lost—70% of the infrastructure, including bridges, water supply systems, schools and health centers that have been ruined.

Roaring currents wiped out more than 100 bridges, including five of the seven that span the Choluteca. The principal water mains for Tegucigalpa’s 1 million people, which spanned the bridges, were smashed as well.

Says Moisés Starkman, Honduras’ secretary for international cooperation: “The infrastructure that was destroyed took 30 years to build.”

In response to Mitch, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and other agencies and organizations are channeling as much money as possible into rebuilding infrastructure.

For example, the IDB has approved loans of $ 246.8 million for recovery and reconstruction, reassigning an additional $ 493.8 million of already approved loans to the cause.

But simply rebuilding is not enough. Equally important are the conservation practices that guide the recovery and subsequent development.

“When it rains for five days it should not destroy a country,” says Zelaya. “What destroyed the country is that there are no longer any natural barriers to stop the effects of the rain.”

- James Wilson and Fiona Ortiz

Environment, Society and Economy Consultants
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 238-8570
Honduran Social Investment Fund
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 236-5252
Fax: +(504) 236-8230
International Cooperation and Technical Secretariat
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 237-7715
Fax: +(504) 237-8074
Gregoire Leclerc
International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT
Cali, Colombia
Tel: +(572) 445-0000 ext.3682
Gabriela Nuñez
Ministry of Finance
+(504) 232-4531
Office of the Mayor
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 222-4999
Ramon Villeda
Honduran Congress
Tel: +(504) 222-2733
Documents & Resources
  1. "Canalización de los Rios de Tegucigalpa y Comayaguela" (1979 River Study), Sir William Halcrow & Partners Ltd., London, England, Tel: +(44 171) 602-7282, Fax: +(44 171) 603-0095.