Monday, October 09, 2017

Environment and weather

Hearing of flooding in south Asia, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the United States, and earthquakes in Mexico, it seems a little whiney to be writing about our weather here.

Rain, rain, rain – as well as heat. But mostly rain.

Water flowing over a concrete bridge, 8 October 2017
October to February is the part of the rainy season that is also quite cool. But we’ve been having heavy rains for weeks in September – more than I remember in any previous year. In many places the earth is almost completely saturated.

The results can be disastrous.

One section of the major international highway that goes between the Caribbean port of Puerto Cortez and El Salvador and Guatemala collapsed and cut off traffic for weeks. The breach in the road is between Santa Rosa de Copán and Cucyagua in a stretch of the highway that was recently repaired. The authorities are saying it is on a geological fault, which is probably partly true because up to sixty nearby houses were severely damaged and hundred displaced. But there also was a 4.3 earthquake not very far from there that may have exaggerated the fault line.

But the rains also have wreaked havoc here in our area. It is not yet as bad as it was in June and July but it could get significantly problematic.

Landslides abound. Even the retention wall below my house fell after a fierce rainfall. It’s now being rebuilt. But this is not merely a question of saturated soil. The former neighbor had excavated soil that had been keeping the wall up. This weakened the wall.

Sunday, October 1, I went to one of the most remote villages, San Marcos Las Pavas, for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. As I approached the church, I was stopped by a landslide that had left only a small muddy path for people to cross. Needless to say, I turned the car around and got out and walked through the mud and water to the church.

The people told me that there was another landslide the other side of the church. More than half of a road had fallen into the ravine below. 

This Sunday I went back with two of the missionaries who are visiting the villages of the parish this week. Part of the path had been cleared from the landslide, but I didn’t trust crossing it with a car. (I was told that the clearing was done by members of the community.)

 I then went to see the other landslide – which had gotten significantly worse.

There are also some very slippery patches of the roads. Last week I approached a curve (where I had slid into the side of the road in August) and saw a bus stuck on the side of the road. I passed with trepidation, but made it.

We also have an increases of deep holes and ditches running across the road in various places but most often down the middle or side of the road. It becomes very tricky negotiating these, mostly trying to avoid them, since they can be between six and twelve inches deep.

I also am seeing several places where the road is sinking. In one place there were deep spots a few months ago, it looks as if the earth will fall again.


Climate change can be a major cause. People here say they haven’t seen such damage from rain since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. I haven’t seen such rain in the ten years I’ve been here.

But there is the problem of neglect.

In some places there has not been up-keep of the roads for a long time. So in a few places almost nothing has been done, even after previous damage. In the curve where the bus slid over to the side of the road, this has been a problem recently because some repair work was done and, in my estimation, not enough gravel was put down.

In this one municipality, people have gone out and done some minor repairs, mostly filling in deep holes with earth. But the municipal government seems to have done little.

In another municipality, the situation has been significantly better since they have put gravel on many roads which helps prevent slippery roads, since a lot of the earth here is clay.

In addition, when there’s a landslide, it is often left at the side of the road, waiting for the municipality to do something. In one case, nothing was done for about a month and so large fissures may driving on the road below the landslide very tricky. But in this case, some people took up shovels and picks and removed the landslide and filled part of the fissures.

In addition, these are narrow roads that often have a lot of traffic. There are busses that pass several times a day, but during the year there are often many truck carrying coffee.

Also, some land owners plant coffee and make roads into their fields without any concern for environmental effects or for possible landslides. There is at least one place where there have been more than four landslides this year. Luckily they have not blocked the whole road.

As for environmental laws or regulations for building, these are virtually non-existent. People build wherever they can. I can understand this when people in poverty build wherever they can. There is often no land available to buy and the large landowners keep grabbing more land and raising prices. But in at least one place a coffee purchasing warehouse and drying area was built where there have been serious problems of flooding of the highway. I doubt if anyone analyzed the environmental effects of the building.

I have not even begun to try to analyze the effect of large scale burning of the fields and the ensuing deforestation. This is most often the practice of large landowners, sometimes looking for a cheap way to clear an area so that they can plant coffee. 

Now one of these landowners did burn a significant area a few years ago, but he has planted hundreds of madreado trees in his fields; this will positively help the environment. But in other places I have seen scorched earth with trees deliberately cut down.

There is much more to write about, but I’ll wait and see how the rains in these next four months affects our lives here.

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