Central America is well known to be a region vulnerable to natural disasters, whether hurricanes, droughts or earthquakes. During the final week of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch - arguably the worst natural disaster of the 20th Century - hit five of the region's six countries (Costa Rica is not included in this study), and Honduras and Nicaragua in particular. Its devastating force reached category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The hurricane brought sustained winds of 288 km/h and gusts of up to 340 km/h.1
Hurricane Mitch hit a region that was just recovering from the effects of the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), with its formidable droughts, forest fires and floods. Moreover, it struck the region at a time when global economic growth had been forecast at 3 percent and annual growth for five of the six countries (including Belize) had been forecast at above four percent.
The destructive economic effects were considerable. According to data from ECLAC,2 the damage totalled US$6 018 million, equivalent to 12.3 percent of the Regional Gross Domestic Product, 42 percent of exports, 67 percent of gross fixed investments and 34.3 percent of the countries' External Debt (excluding Belize).
The hurricane brought renewed distress to the people of Central America, who had only recently begun to enjoy peace, following a period marked by armed conflict and the presence of military forces in the rural areas of four of the five countries affected by Mitch.
The destruction was especially significant among the rural population of small producers of basic grains (maize, beans and rice), because this sector of the population lives and farms on alluvial lands, floodplains and hillsides with poor soil and limited soil-management or soil-conservation systems.
The impact of Hurricane Mitch highlighted a fact that other meteorological phenomena had shown in the past, albeit with less force: despite the fact that it is naturally located in the path of storms and hurricanes, the Central American region suffers from a lack of systems for prevention, early warning, relief and rehabilitation following the passage of these cyclonic events. Added to this, there is the considerable vulnerability of the population - especially those living in rural areas and outlying city districts, and in the marginal districts of the major cities of Central America.
Food insecurity is intensified and exacerbated during the months following a disaster, and national response capacities are very limited and poor in content, even though international aid agencies have always done everything possible to relieve food shortages among the population at risk. This situation once again highlights the need to consider how national and local capacities can be improved and strengthened, so as to provide an immediate response to emergency situations. That response must be provided in particular by union organizations and civil society, together with governments, as the institutions responsible for creating the necessary conditions for attending to the needs of people afflicted by disasters.
The difficulties involved in restoring production immediately after these events are obvious. It is quite clear that we must address those difficulties and prepare a medium-term strategy designed to ensure that producers can resume their productive activities, especially when soils have suffered severe damage and equipment and tools for basic farming and weed control have been lost.
2 Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.