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OXFAM Emergencies Bulletin Dec 1999 Latin America/Caribbean

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Hurricane Mitch
Hurricane Mitch's week-long path of destruction through Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala at the end of October 1998 left thousands dead and missing, hundreds of thousands homeless, and caused devastation to homes, infrastructure and production that will leave these countries struggling to recover for years. After assessing the damages produced by Hurricane Mitch, Oxfam intervened through an initial six month emergency programme. Oxfam's programme has now finished its emergency phase and is starting the rehabilitation process. Oxfam has also lobbied to challenge international donors and the Central American governments to work for a reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, and to increase the assistance for reconstruction and debt relief.


Because of their geographical situation, Nicaragua and Honduras are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. During Hurricane Mitch, severe damage was caused in Nicaragua. Whole towns were wiped out, over three thousand people were killed and eight hundred thousand people displaced over a wide geographical area. Oxfam mounted an emergency response to help some of the poorest and most remote communities in the Atlantic Coast region as well as in the Matagalpa and León areas. Food was distributed and an agricultural rehabilitation programme established with several communities in the area. Oxfam funded the provision of clean water, food assistance and prevention of epidemics within the affected areas of the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region, particularly to indigenous communities along the Coco and the Prinzapolka rivers which suffered the destruction of villages, and loss of crops, cattle and fishing accessories. In western and north-east Nicaragua Oxfam provided plastic sheeting and mosquito netting for use in conjunction with ongoing emergency shelter projects. Funds were also provided to purchase plastic buckets for water collection and food storage in remote communities in north-east Nicaragua.


In Honduras Hurricane Mitch caused over 6,000 deaths and 11,000 disappearances, whilst 2,000,000 people lost their homes and livelihoods. Initially, relief work centred around providing safe water supplies and preventing disease through health promotion, and providing basic living equipment to homeless families resettled from temporary shelters. In Olancho District Oxfam provided assistance with food and feeding kits, medicine, transportation to shelters and agricultural rehabilitation. In the northern district of Cortes, Oxfam provided water, domestic utensils, clothing, medicines and shelter, and in western Honduras worked through partners to provide basic needs such as water, domestic utensils, clothing and medicine, as well as reactivating the productive capacity for 6,716 affected families.


Damage in Guatemala and El Salvador, resulting from Hurricane Mitch, was more localised and much development work was able to continue. Funds were given to partner organisations to provide immediate aid. In Guatemala immediate priority was given to health, water, housing repair and food channelled though counterparts on the basis of their assessment of needs in the communities where they were working. Oxfam provided support for 706 families in 22 communities in Cuenca del Polochic. Funds were used for productive rehabilitation, for purchase and distribution of seeds, tools and cattle and for technical assistance, provided through a partner organisation.

El Salvador

In El Salvador, it was evident that some of the work Oxfam had been supporting helped to minimise the effects of the hurricane.

Hurricane Mitch, registering as Category 5 on the Saffir/Simpson scale, caused exceptional destruction to the countries of central America in 1998. However, the hurricane season sweeps the region each year in Autumn. This year saw Tropical Storm Jose moving across the Lesser Antilles, and Hurricane Irene, a category one hurricane, hitting central Cuba. Heavy rains have affected Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, and are set to continue for some time. Oxfam has completed a series of workshops with staff and partners in the region in preparation for emergency response.


Oxfam is currently running civil engineering projects aimed at structural reinforcement of houses under construction for 60 families in the Versalles community, who were relocated following Hurricane Mitch. The improved structures will be better able to withstand the seismic activity which is frequent in that zone.

During the Cerro Negro volcanic eruption people from the Lechecuagos and Chacaraseca communities in the Leon municipality were evacuated from their homes. Oxfam is working through partner organisations towards their safe return by purchasing black plastic sheeting to be used as temporary roofing while people repair the damages caused by the eruption, and providing soap for family hygiene.


The first phase of a joint Oxfam International Rehabilitation Programme in Honduras gave support to agricultural reactivation in communities affected by the Mitch emergency. Funds were spent on seeds, tools, equipment, and credit for the production of basic grains, commercial crops, reforestation and women's productive activities. Technical training was given for sustainable resource management, for the key planting season of April/May 1999. Funds were also raised for the re-building of damaged infra-structure.


On 15/16 September, heavy rains throughout Mexico brought some of the worst flooding seen in over 45 years to the state of Tabasco. As the rains continued the floods worsened until on 23 October the government announced that it would have to open the gates on one of the upstream dams to drain off the dangerously high water levels. This increased the level of the floods in Tabasco to such a level that the city of Villahermosa was totally cut off by road and 85% of the state is currently estimated to be under water. Tabasquenas have had to cope with additional respiratory infections caused by a large petrochemical industry in the state. The Mexican government and military are responding well to the crisis; there are 221,500 people officially affected in Tabasco, 47,000 of whom are sheltering in now saturated government shelters. The remainder have stayed to protect their homes or moved in with family and friends. The government is also distributing bottled water and has set up six potable water systems in the largest of the out-laying towns. The rains are expected to continue until mid-November and most areas are expected to remain flooded for at least another two months.

The Oxfam International nuclear group in Mexico, headed by Novib (Oxfam in the Netherlands), have agreed to undertake an initial assessment of the effects of the rains and consider the needs of the affected population. The assessment team has visited the south of Vercruz and the state of Tabasco, and a programme is being assembled to respond to the public health needs caused by the floods, distributing family sanitation kits and medical assistance.

El Niño

Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil are all subjected to the effects of the periodic El Niño Phenomenon. Oxfam carried out a review of the regional emergency responses in 1997 / 1998, seeking to learn from the varied experiences in the different countries. This will benefit the region by improving Oxfam's response in future El Niño emergency situations.


Ecuador has relied on a series of 'boom and bust' exports, the latest being petroleum, although poor people have not shared in the profits. As in other countries in Latin America, poor people have received little benefit from an economic model that promotes exports and cuts social services in order to repay the country's huge debt burdens.

Oxfam are working in Ecuador to improve nutrition and access to safe water for 813 families in 13 rural communities affected by El Niño, through the promotion of vegetable gardens, delivery of seed, and training.

There are presently two active volcanoes in Ecuador. The first, Guagua Pichincha is spreading ash over local populations. The second, Tungurahua has gone to an orange alert and an eruption is expected soon. 30,000 inhabitants and their livestock have been evacuated from the immediate area. An Oxfam consultant has assessed both situations in order to form an emergency response involving agricultural and economic reactivation, and water and sanitation response, or a contingency plan involving the provision of latrines and medicines, and protection of water systems.


Brazil is the world's fifth largest country and is rich in natural resources. Yet although it has the world's tenth ranking economy, the gap between rich and poor is also one of the largest with one third of the population living in poverty.

Brazil suffers from cyclical drought from El Niño. Drought provoked by the El Niño phenomenon in 1998 has affected some 10 million people in the interior of north-east Brazil where water supplies are precarious causing wide-spread crop failure. Oxfam focused on water supply construction and seed distribution. Oxfam set up seed banks with drought resistant seeds, and set up an advocacy programme to highlight the problems. Another drought is about to hit, but the programme has failed to find funding and has been scaled down to meet the needs of only the most vulnerable, the indigenous population of c.8,000, who lack management capacity.

The Rio Envira Indian peoples Organisation (OPIRE) represents four ethno-linguistic groups in the State of Acre in the Amazon. Oxfam has funded continued emergency support to help indigenous communities affected by the flood from Paroa to Cardoso region, municipality of Feijo, western Amazonia (2 tribes, 140 families, 800 people) in 1998. Oxfam has also funded the construction of wells and water pipes, food, seeds and medicines for the indigenous population in the State of Roraima-Amazon Region, who have experienced prolonged drought and widespread fires, resulting in food and water shortages, and loss of cattle, crops and pastures.


Colombia is a wealthy country, with good farmland, natural resources and two coastlines, yet 44 per cent of its 35 million people are poor. Inequalities of land and income distribution are amongst the worst in Latin America. Levels of violence in Colombia, political and criminal, are far higher than any other country in Latin America. Such violence is frequently tied to economic interests, affecting areas rich in natural resources or of geo-strategic importance, such as Casanare & Urabá.

Colombia's civil war, the western hemisphere's longest running internal conflict, has seen the rural population caught between the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the armed forces themselves. Often they are forced to flee their lands, in many cases for a second or third time. People working in defence of human rights or social development have also been targeted by paramilitaries, and assassinated or forced to flee through threats. The number of IDP's has escalated over the past 18 months as the guerrillas, paramilitaries and army continue to fight for territorial control. Currently accepted figures are approaching 1,500,000 people displaced, many of whom live in abject poverty in fear of their lives in the slums surrounding the major cities. It is estimated that 40 families a day move in to the capital, Bogota alone. In the last few weeks, 12 million people in 600 towns and cities across Colombia have demonstrated in favour of peace, causing a positive turn in the peace process negotiations between guerilla organisations. Concrete measures are needed to harness this movement.

Oxfam continues to fund the Centre for Integrated Assistance to Displaced Families in Bogotá, offering immediate humanitarian assistance to 1200 displaced families. Funds are used for food baskets, household utensils, medical & dental care, workshops, skills training, advocacy and lobbying. Oxfam is also making a feasibility study to join with Médécins Sans Frontières in a £100,000 water and sanitation programme.

Urabá district continues to be one of the most disputed and violent areas in Colombia. Oxfam are funding a project that is providing integral assistance to four displaced/returned communities in Urabá, all of which are defending their right to non-participation in the armed conflict. The project aims to protect the community members right to life, strengthen their internal organisation and give them access to resources. It also aims to raise awareness by lobbying at local, national and international levels.

On the 25 January 1999 a severe earthquake hit the Departments of Quindio and Risaralda, causing over 1,000 deaths and injuring many thousands of people. Over 500,000 people were left without drinking water, 100,000 people were made homeless and much of the area was left without electricity, causing further deaths and injury. Following an assessment, Oxfam carried out an emergency water, sanitation, shelter and relief programme, creating temporary camps in the urban centres of Armenia, Calarcá and Montenegro and providing water and sanitation equipment. This programme is now drawing to a close.