Countries hit by Hurricane "Mitch" on long road to recovery

Homeless victims of Hurricane "Mitch" camp out in plastic tents along a highway in Honduras
FAO/20944/L. Dematteis

Mud and sand cover a destroyed pineapple field in Honduras
FAO/20937/L. Dematteis

Flooded sugar cane crop in Honduras
FAO/20933/L. Dematteis

Farmland and crops flooded by swollen river in Nicaragua
FAO/20947/L. Dematteis

Destroyed waterworks in Nicaragua. Volcano and mudslide are visible in the background.
FAO/20940/L. Dematteis

Roadway and bridge damaged in Nicaragua
FAO/20938/L. Dematteis

Hurricane "Mitch" cut a deadly path across much of Central America between 26 October and 1 November 1998. Torrential rains and high winds caused widespread flooding and landslides, leaving thousands dead and even more homeless in the wake of what some are calling the worst natural disaster in the region's modern history.

The hurricane's impact on food availability in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rica - some of the poorest countries in Central America - has been devastating. Food and cash crops have been largely wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of people are without work and any means of income. Damage to basic infrastructure, agricultural production and the industrial sector has virtually destroyed more than two decades of progress in these developing countries.

UN Consolidated appeal for immediate relief

In the short term, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has made a transitional appeal of more than US$150 million to the international donor community to fund the region's relief needs and the most immediate rehabilitation requirements. FAO is the UN agency responsible for the agricultural component of the consolidated appeal which amounts to US$22.4 million. The Organization's Special Relief Operations Service (TCOR) is now organizing the distribution of basic inputs - including seeds, fertilizers and hand tools - to the hardest-hit rural communties. By encouraging local food production, farmers will be better equipped to feed themselves and their families and the need for food aid will be reduced.

Missions to Nicaragua and Honduras - the countries that suffered most from Hurricane Mitch - were fielded jointly with the World Food Programme (WFP) to assess the crop and food supply situation and agricultural rehabilitation needs. (Go to Special Alert)

In Honduras, over 50 percent of agricultural infrastructure and production is reported to have been severely affected or completely destroyed. "Raging rivers did most of the damage to farmland in Honduras," said Richard Wuster, who took part in the FAO/WFP damage assessment mission to that country. Intense rains accompanying the hurricane fed the deadly rivers that washed away all crops or left them covered in up to one metre of silt and sand in some places, rendering the land unsuitable for any crop production. FAO plans to distribute seeds, fertilizers and some insecticides to approximately 50 000 farm families.

In Nicaragua, besides severe losses in cereal and pulses production and leading export commodities, more than 12 000 cattle were lost. FAO has requested US$3.4 million to provide seeds, tools and fertilizers, vaccines and drugs to assist the livestock sector as well as to assist in the coordination of emergency rehabilitation of the agricultural sector. Some basic agricultural inputs are already in the hands of most vulnerable affected farmers in that country.

Longer term sustainable rehabilitation is critical

Once the most immediate "life-saving" needs have been met, sustainable medium and long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction of the agricultural sector are critical. The hurricane exposed the extreme vulnerability of large parts of the population and revealed the pressing need for sustainable, environmentally responsible policies.

Human factors were largely blamed for severely compounding the effects of Mitch. Large-scale deforestation and the cultivation of marginal lands without any attempt to conserve the soil provoked mud slides. Flooding was aggravated by a lack of adequate watershed management.

The poor bore the brunt of Mitch's devastating effects. Hurricane Mitch was the "last straw" for Nicaragua's poorest farmers, according to Mariano Gosi, who took part in the mission fielded by TCOR to that country. Increasingly marginalized over many years of hardship because of restricted land rights, prolonged civil strife, lesser hurricanes and adverse climatic conditions brought on by the El Niño phenomenon, small farmers have been left to cultivate what they can in high-risk areas, such as riverbanks and hillsides, with few assets and little access to credit to buy seed and fertilizer.

FAO's technical departments are taking the lead in the short and longer term agricultural rehabilitation process, focusing on improved natural resource management. Currently, the Agriculture Department is working with three affected countries to develop national action plans for land conservation and rehabilitation that could reduce the effects of Hurricane Mitch on croplands. The Sustainable Development Department will assist in implementing land tenure practices in the region. The Forestry Department will support countries' efforts to rehabilitate forest areas, which will help generate employment in rural areas and improve protection of watershed and denuded lands.

FAO's Special Programme for Food Security is another important part of the longer-term reconstruction effort. By implementing the four main components of the SPFS - crop intensification, water control, diversification and constraints analysis - countries will be better prepared to face the wrath of future hurricanes and other natural disasters that could come their way.

22 January 1999

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