BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Three weeks after torrential rains triggered deadly floods and landslides in Central America, communities remain cut off and tens of thousands of families need food, the United Nations said.
In one of the region’s worst deluges in decades, heavy rains, caused by a tropical depression, hit Central America on Oct. 10, and have killed more than 100 people, made tens of thousands homeless and disrupted the lives of 1.2 million people.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are the worst affected countries.
“There are communities that are still to be reached in Nicaragua and in other countries. We do have thousands of families in shelters but there are many more that have to be evacuated to avoid landslides,” Catherine Bragg, the U.N. assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told AlertNet in a telephone interview from the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.
“We do have people in immediate need. Of the 134,000 families affected by the floods in Nicaragua, I would imagine a large proportion are in need of food aid,” Bragg added.
Collapsed bridges and debris from mudslides blocking roads are hampering efforts to reach isolated communities across Central America. Water levels of Lake Managua in western Nicaragua are still rising, Bragg said.
The extent of flood damage to agriculture and infrastructure is still unknown.
“There has been a lot of damage to agricultural land and infrastructure. It is a very serious situation in Nicaragua. The extent of it is still not totally known yet. It is a crisis that is still unfolding,” said Bragg, at the start of a four-day visit to Nicaragua and El Salvador to shore up support for international donor aid.
Last week, the United Nations launched $30 million flash appeals to provide emergency shelter, clean water and food to around 434,000 people in Nicaragua and El Salvador over the next six months. Bragg said she is “confident” that the international community will pledge the funds needed.
Floods and landslides have decimated farms, washed away crops, and killed livestock in El Salvador and Nicaragua, raising concerns that the number of people going hungry there could rise.
“Thousands of families have lost their livelihoods and food insecurity is a concern,” Bragg said.
In El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador, lost harvests have already pushed up prices of staple foods by 10 percent, while around 80 percent of its corn, beans and vegetable crops have been completely wiped out or damaged, according to the United Nations.
Guatemala too is vulnerable to food shortages. Even before the floods, it was struggling to feed its population and the country relies on international food aid to stave off hunger.
Guatemala has the world's fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition, which affects almost half of children under five, according to the U.N.
Sexual abuse and harassment in shelters across El Salvador, where nearly 56,000 people made homeless by the floods are living, is a growing concern.
“Reports are already being presented detailing cases of sexual abuse and harassment in collective centres, and it is estimated that 280 may be victims of sexual violence,” an October U.N. flash appeal report said.
The United Nations estimates that El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, will need $1.5 billion – equivalent to five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – to rebuild the country in the wake of the floods.
Although public awareness about the risks of flooding in El Salvador has improved in recent years, the damage caused by the latest floods has renewed calls for government authorities to implement better prevention measures. These include curbing high rates of deforestation, which have made communities more vulnerable to mudslides and landslides.
El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently promised to improve disaster risk prevention and management.
“We can’t build housing in high-risk areas as we have been doing up till now …. we can’t continue to allow people to build houses near river basins, along river beds because that way we are not going to solve the problem,” local press reported the president as saying last week.
In the past 40 years, Central America has been ravaged by a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes, which have killed around 50,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.