Mountainous and heavily forested, Guatemala has a striking terrain. But this year, a series of natural disasters has brought grief to this beautiful country.
In May, a powerful tropical storm struck, causing the deaths of 165 people. And this storm arrived shortly after a major eruption form the Pacaya volcano in southern Guatemala. 1,600 people were evacuated and nearly 1,000 homes damaged or destroyed. The government called a state of emergency across the south, where the main airport was closed and Guatemalan’s were advised not to leave their homes because of the ash raining down over the following days.
Now weeks of heavy rains have brought further disaster to Guatemala, with mud slides crashing down from the mountains. Guatemalan officials report that 38 people are known to have died in the recent landslips, but that the final total of those killed will be much higher.
In the worst incident, along the Inter-American highway north of Guatemala City, a bus was submerged in mud after a landslide. A group of locals from the village of Nahuala rushed to help those who were trapped, digging several people out of the mud with picks and shovels. But as the rescuers continued to dig, another mudslide hit those workers. One volunteer said there were warning sounds from the mountain, “like an earthquake, but people would not leave”. A whole crowd of the volunteers was covered by the second slide. 20 bodies were recovered, but 40 helpers are still missing. Work to find them has been suspended because of possible further landslides. More than 100 kilometres of the Inter-American highway has now been closed to traffic. Many other roads are blocked and several bridges have been swept away by flood waters.
The President of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, has called the mudslides a national tragedy and said “it’s painful that poor people always pay the price for natural disasters”.
His comments may refer to the fact that it is the poorest people who live in the countryside areas. Two-thirds of rural Guatemalans remain incredibly poor. In some rural areas, where the population is mainly of Mayan descent, child malnutrition rates are as high as 80%. A meagre and unvaried diet of tortillas is to blame. The situation in the mountainous regions is not helped by a lack of infrastructure and access to education and health services.
So as the rains destroy what little infrastructure there is, it will certainly be the poorest who suffer most from these cruel natural disasters.