Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall

from IPS News

By José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Having been hit by three hurricanes and 25 tropical storms in less than 10 years, Nicaragua is looking ahead to the next rainy season, due to begin in May, with wariness and trepidation.

The government is alarmed by forecasts of an active cyclone season ahead.

Colorado State University in the United States has forecast that during the North Atlantic hurricane season from June to November this year, there will probably be 15 named tropical storms, eight of which will become hurricanes. Four of these will be capable of inflicting severe damage, they predict.

Nicaragua’s Civil Defence chief, Colonel Mario Pérez-Cassar, told IPS he is taking this forecast seriously, because over the years the university’s predictions have been "98 percent accurate."

"Every year we assess the different scenarios and analyse climate conditions using national and international instruments," he said. Forecasts by Dr. William Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist with 25 years’ experience of predicting hurricanes, "are always accurate, so this year we are preparing for the worst."

Pérez-Cassar said the army is drawing up evacuation and shelter plans for at least half a million Nicaraguans living in 996 areas that are extremely vulnerable to storms and flooding.

He estimates a 50 percent chance that Nicaragua will be lashed by another hurricane like Felix, a Category 5 storm that destroyed a large part of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in the northeast of the country last year. Category 5 is the highest level of hurricane intensity on the Saffir-Sampson scale.

Hurricane Felix devastated the RAAN on Sept. 4, 2007, killing 102 people, with another 130 people missing and 220,000 left homeless. Damages were assessed at 900 million dollars, and crops in the region were totally destroyed, according to official data. Earlier, in 1998 and 2005 respectively, hurricanes Mitch and Beta pounded Nicaragua, causing over 3,000 deaths and billions of dollars of damage to infrastructure and to the country’s productive capacity.

Civil Defence statistics show that since 1998, Nicaragua has also been directly affected by 25 tropical storms that caused floods, landslides and severe crop damage.

President Daniel Ortega has even proposed suspending municipal elections in the RAAN, on the grounds that it is highly probable that a string of storms and hurricanes is heading that way.

Indigenous communities in the RAAN are still suffering the after-effects of hurricane Felix and the forecasts for this year have magnified fears of another disaster to come, said Reverend Norman Bent, a pastor in Puerto Cabezas, which was badly hit by the hurricane in 2007.

"The coastal areas of Puerto Cabezas, both to the north and to the south, were severely damaged and houses have still not been rebuilt. They are almost exactly as they were just after the hurricane; very few homes have been rebuilt," he said.

"There isn’t famine as such, but there is a shortage of certain staple foods. People are not eating as they should. It’s already time to plant rice and other basic products such as cassava, bananas and plantains, but people are reluctant. They’re afraid another hurricane will come and take everything away from them again," Bent said.

The Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) has also predicted a turbulent rainy season. "Given the variation in temperatures of the continental platform in the Atlantic off Nicaragua because of the effects of global warming, the conditions are such that any tropical storm in that area will gather strength and become a hurricane," it warned.

Following the announcement of more heavy rainfall to come, the mayor’s office in Managua is taking urgent measures to clear water channels and eliminate refuse dumps.

Modesto Rojas, in charge of Environment for the city council, told IPS that the mayor’s office is working "at full steam" to clean the water channels, which are clogged with rubbish after refuse collectors went on a month-long strike.

The mayor’s office has also called on the national government to protect the international airport and the city centre of Managua. Deforestation and erosion on the mountains surrounding the capital have increased the risk of mudslides.

"Over one million Managuans are vulnerable to landslides from the mountains that form the southern watershed for rivers draining into Lake Managua. This is not alarmist, it’s a fact, and the government must heed the warnings," Rojas said. According to conservationist and scientist Jaime Incer, "today more than ever before, the country is destroyed and exposed to natural disasters, not only because of local environmental destruction but also due to the effects of climate change."

"In the last 40 years, we have done everything possible to make ourselves naked and defenceless against disasters," he complained, referring to the destruction of 60 percent of forest biomass in recent years, and the pollution of 80 percent of Nicaragua’s water sources.

Claudio Tomasi, deputy resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nicaragua, said that climate change can already be seen in extreme phenomena such as hurricanes, tidal waves, extensive flooding and lengthy droughts.

Natural disasters are an increasing concern all over the world, since they limit the ability of countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to improve their human development index ranking, Tomasi said.

However, the executive secretary of the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response, Ramón Arnesto, said that although there are real risks, there is also a great deal of sensationalism in press coverage of the issue.

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