‘We can’t live like this’: climate shocks rain down on Honduras’s poorest

It was around dusk on the third consecutive day of heavy rain when the River Aguán burst its banks and muddy waters surged through the rural community of Chapagua in north-east Honduras, sweeping away crops, motorbikes and livestock.

Most inhabitants fled to higher ground after the category 4 Hurricane Eta made landfall in early November 2020, but fisherman Rosendo García stayed behind, hoping to safeguard the family’s home and animals. After a ravine on the opposite side of the village also flooded, there was no way out.

Inside his single-storey brick house, the water quickly rose from knee-deep to chest high. “It was so fast, like milk when it boils,” said García, 55.

He escaped once the water subsided a few days later with just one pig, a few chickens and a dog.

But shortly after, a landslide carried the entire house into the river, taking everything the family owned, including fishing nets, furniture and most of the animals. More than 40 sacks of freshly harvested corn were ruined, the once-fertile land buried under sand. Garcia’s entire extended family was left destitute.

“We are poor people but in Chapagua we never felt poor. We always had enough to eat, we could hunt, fish and farm, but we lost all of that,” said García. “It’s hard to be displaced. We’re starting again from zero and we’re totally on our own.”

With nowhere else to go, the family piled up soil and sand to create an island on the swampy edge of a lagoon, and built a new home. The house – made from plywood, sticks, cement and metal sheets – is surrounded by salty water.

García is building a wall from old tyres and sandbags in the hope of keeping the tide at bay, but the sea is rising and the tides are getting stronger. Shining a flashlight into the crab holes reveals that the tidewater is only a foot or so below the surface.

“When it thunders, the house shakes like a bucket floating in water,” said Nanda Morales, 59, García’s wife. “We are living through climate change in real time.”

Honduras is one of the most unequal, corrupt and violent countries in Latin America, where a handful of politically powerful clans control the economy while more than two-thirds of the population live in poverty.

Its geography and socio-economic deficiencies make Honduras one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events like droughts, heatwaves, storms and floods which are increasing in intensity due to global heating.

A fortnight after Hurricane Eta came Iota: two of the most erratic and destructive Atlantic hurricanes on record, which together killed at least 98 people and caused widespread damage to homes, infrastructure and farmland. The impact was felt by about 4.1 million people in Honduras – half the country’s population.

The two storms capped a disastrous hurricane season for Central America – its worst since Mitch in 1998 left at least 8,000 people dead and a million others landless and homeless – including the García family.

After Mitch, public pressure led to new legislation, yet few climate adaptation plans have been implemented, according to Claudia Pineda from the Honduran Climate Change Alliance. “Public policies are incoherent, contradictory and causing further environmental degradation which expose communities further. The government knows what needs to be done, but isn’t doing it.”

In 2018, the government published a national plan for climate adaptation, which included a range of measures yet to be implemented.

As a result, Honduras was woefully unprepared for the 2020 hurricane season, which came after several years of drought across Central America.

The country’s poorest people barely have time to recover from one climate disaster before the next one strikes: time after time, vulnerable communities that have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions are hit by drought, floods and storms.

“There’s no strategic investment in long-term climate resilience initiatives, and it’s the poorest who keep paying the price,” said Josué León, a hydrologist and climate adaptation expert at Zamorano University in Tegucigalpa.

At the start of this year’s rainy season, a toddler died after falling into the river in Chapagua when the eroded soil collapsed under his feet. His family had stayed in their partially destroyed house after Eta as they had nowhere else to go. But many have simply fled. Community leaders estimate that about 10% of the population has either migrated north or remain internally displaced since Eta.

Alba Hernández’s eldest son left home three months ago with a change of clothes and $40 (1,000 lempiras) to look for work in the US. Angelo, 29, lost his job when the African palm plantations were flooded, and struggled to support his six-year-old daughter as there are few other options in the Bajo Aguán region.

Angelo made it to New Jersey. But his mother is tired of running from the river.

Standing against the wall in Angelo’s empty bedroom, she welled up as she told their story. “For years we’ve been trying to relocate the community to safer ground, but the authorities are deaf to our requests. Honduras is beautiful, but it’s so violent, and now on top climate change is destroying us,” she said.

It’s not just that the climate is increasingly chaotic. In recent years a wave of environmentally destructive megaprojects – including dams, tourist resorts, mines and African palm plantations – has exacerbated the situation, leading to worse flooding and water shortages.

Around 2008, African palm magnates redirected the mighty Aguán river to help irrigate their plantations. Every year, as it settled into its new course, rains and landslides shifted it further, leaving some communities dangerously close to the river while others were left without water.

After Mitch, the García family had built new houses set back some distance from the Aguán, but the banks were slowly eaten away, and by the time Eta struck, they were living right on the edge.

On the other side of the river, a small community named after 1974’s Hurricane Fifi, became an island after a ravine with an intermittent stream became a free-flowing tributary. Kayaks are now the only way in and out.

León the hydrologist said: “It’s not complicated. We know which communities suffer time and time again and why, so it’s entirely possible to change things dramatically through simple scientific measures to better manage natural resources and improve resilience. It would not cost that much. We just need some political will and vision.”

Like many developing countries, Honduras will be looking for a hike in international aid during Cop26 but experts warn against funding without conditions.According to the UN, Eta and Iota caused about $1.9bn in damages and losses in Honduras, a far lower estimate than the government’s $10bn price tag.

León added: “The international community should only support science-based initiatives which involve civil society groups and academics, to ensure funds are not misused or stolen.”

Back at the swampy lagoon, mouldy cuddly toys and a doll rescued from the muddy deluge are soaking in a bucket because Garcia’s granddaughters cannot bear to throw them out. Seven-year-old Ilsa’s pet duck, Patricia – who was also rescued after the water subsided – wanders in and out of the house, harassing the chickens and dogs.

There is some hope. A farming cooperative donated some land for Chapagua’s 202 families to relocate, but the community must still raise about $2,000 (50,000 lempiras) to cover travel costs for government officials to visit and authorize the project. Then, local authorities will apply for international aid to build new houses, though there won’t be enough space to grow food or keep animals.

It could still take years. Until then, no one in Chapagua will sleep easily, and the men will continue to take turns patrolling the river at night in case it floods.

“I have my suitcases packed, ready to go,” said Sharluy Hernández, spokeswoman for the neighborhood association. “We can’t live like this. There’s no future for us here.”

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