On May 25, a low pressure system formed in the Pacific, causing heavy rain in Guatemala, El Salvador and the south of Honduras. The region's national meteorological services immediately began recording and monitoring the rainfall, and El Salvador declared a national emergency on May 29. The heaviest rains fell in the same departments where tropical storm Ida had left its mark in November last year. Guatemala was the country hardest hit, with 21 of its 22 departments being affected. From May 28, 462 millimeters (18.5 inches) of rain fell, the highest recorded level since 1948. To date, more than 150,000 people are still in shelters, 101 are missing and 171 have died.
In the department of Baja Verapaz the situation is critical. Guatemala's so-called dry corridor runs through this department, where a severe drought precipitated a food emergency last September.
"They lost last year's harvest because of the drought" explains Gloria Gonzalez of the Association of Community Health Services (ASECSA), referring to the small-scale farmers in the communities of Cubulco, Rabinal, and Salamá. "This winter started well. They planted new crops and were confident that they would do well. But now they've lost those crops as well. We estimate that six in ten farmers have lost their harvests."
ASECSA, with the support of Oxfam, is helping those affected with free clinics and food supplies, especially in Cubulco, where the population is still cut off. The only way of reaching this community is via a 300-metre hanging bridge which collapsed in the rains. Help is arriving by motorboat, but the population is afraid to go outside because of the risks posed by the Chixoy River, which has swollen considerably.
In the municipality of Champerico in the south-east of the department of Retalhuleu, the situation is also worrying. This coastal area was flooded when the Samala River basin overflowed, destroying harvests, killing livestock, and contaminating water sources. The Community Coordinating Association for Health Services (ACCSS) has been working in this region since the flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and in May, just weeks before the rains began, it completed a project to train 20 water, sanitation, and hygiene-promotion leaders. They soon had an opportunity to put their newly-acquired knowledge into practice.
" The leaders were able to get to work and take immediate action,” says Lisa Donado of the ACCSS. “They performed evacuations, asked us for chlorine and aluminum sulfate to treat water, contacted the Ministry of Health about fumigation, and they dug channels to drain off the floodwater."
However, a great deal of rehabilitation work still needs to be done. ACSS estimates that just in the communities where they are working there are at least 500 contaminated wells and flooded latrines. "We're currently putting together a rehabilitation plan for the 10 worst-affected communities", she adds. "The most urgent tasks are to drain and clean the wells and latrines, repair communal water tanks, and promote hygiene."
In El Salvador, Oxfam has a warehouse holding pre-positioned supplies, which enables a rapid response. Within 24 hours of the declaration of national emergency, Oxfam and its partners were assisting the affected communities, providing water and sanitation, installing water tanks, and distributing buckets, diapers, and mattresses.
Oxfam has raised US$415,000 for the immediate response and rehabilitation work.