Eye witness

November 20, 1998

As the rescue mission in Honduras and Guatemala turns into an attempt to reconstruct their shattered infrastructures and economies, and the trail of world figures through the region slows to a trickle, some of the longer-term effects of the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch are only now beginning to emerge.

The narrow coastal plain and other low-lying areas of Honduras are inevitably vulnerable to flooding, according to Andrew McKenzie, a hydrogeologist with the British Geographical Survey. What made Mitch different was the large volume of rainwater falling on the hills that form the bulk of the country's land area, where soils are thin and unable to absorb the rainfall.

Mr McKenzie and colleagues from the BGS spent nearly four years in Honduras working with the state water company mapping groundwater capacity and extraction on a project funded by the former Overseas Development Administration to establish reliable and sustainable water supplies.

Much of the infrastructure they located is expected to have been destroyed as well heads have been washed away and bore holes silted up. Power for pumps will have been interrupted.

With the emphasis on short-term reconstruction "there is a danger you could lose a lot of the benefits of an institutional development programme, which is designed to get people to think critically about what they are aiming to do before they do it. In a post-disaster siutation you lose that and people rush round doing things - things that have to be done in a hurry - but in ten years' time someone else will have to put right what was done in a hurry," Mr McKenzie said.

"I, other colleagues in the BGS, and people from Canadian aid organisations, are desperate. You have a feeling that if you were there you might be able to do something, and it is depressing not to be there."

As the international emergency aid effort gathered pace, the focus fell on the issue of debt relief. Oxfam exp-ressed concern that Honduras, despite spending Pounds 160 million last year on servicing its debt, may not be eligible.

Carmen Li, of the economics department at the University of Essex, has a research interest in development, the economics of Latin America and international debt: "Money is needed now to rebuild the country and should not be linked to debt renegotiation. A large number of low-income countries owe money to international official creditors. These lenders need to enter into realistic negotiations with the debtor nations and agree a permanent solution."

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