El Salvador flood disaster worsened by deforestation

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In the small town of Colon, El Salvador, soldiers, rescue workers and volunteers pulled bodies from the wreckage of homes yesterday, after flooding and a mudslide killed dozens of people in Central America.

The immediate cause of the flooding was the torrential rainfall that has lashed the region for the past few days. But the disaster that has killed at least 39 was, to all intents and purposes, man-made.

Much of El Salvador's tree cover has been removed, leaving the country vulnerable to flash flooding. Only an estimated 2 per cent of the tree cover that existed before the 10-year civil war remains.

At least 31 deaths were reported in the country as downpours triggered mudslides and caused rivers to burst their banks in neighbourhoods south and west of the capital, San Salvador.

"Here, there are at least seven people dead. And there, about 50 metres away, another family is buried," said Jose Dolores Portillo, who escaped the mudslide in Colon. Behind him, rescue teams continued their search for bodies.

Civil war and ecological destruction have been followed by natural disasters: Hurricane Mitch, El Niño, the 1986 earthquake, the 14 January and 14 February 2001 earthquakes.

As the swollen rivers carried all in front of them, one woman was coming to terms with the loss of her family members. "They are trapped in the mud that drowned them," sobbed Ana Ramos, whose niece died with her husband and three children in San Marcos.

El Salvador's government declared a state of emergency and began evacuation plans for those most in danger. "We are going to the lower Lempa to evacuate about 3,000 families," said Eduardo Rivera, the spokesman for one of El Salvador's leading emergency rescue units.

The normally calm Lempa, El Salvador's largest river, failed to cope with the deluge brought about by the recent storms.

The rains have been blamed on Tropical Storm Stan, upgraded to Hurricane Stan yesterday morning, now making its way across the Gulf Coast.

The National Hurricane Centre has issued warnings for much of the Gulf's coastal region. Most at risk is the important Mexican port of Veracruz. Oil platforms nearby have been evacuated.

While no damage has yet been reported in Mexico, other Central American states have been less fortunate. Honduras reported four fatalities, including the death of a one-year old boy, while Nicaraguan authorities announced that six bodies, possibly illegal immigrants on their way to the US, were washed on to the north-western shore after their boat capsized.

Four people were killed in Guatemala, prompting the authorities to follow El Salvador's lead and declare a state of emergency.

Central America is notoriously prone to the devastating effect of mudslides. In January 2001, an earthquake in El Salvador triggered a mudslide that killed more than 400 people.

John Sauven, campaign director for Greenpeace, said: "Unfortunately, something nearly always happens this time of year. Mudslides are becoming more and more common and deforestation certainly plays a role."

El Salvador's President, Tony Saca, acknowledged the seriousness of the situation: "Sixty-five per cent of the country is in danger of landslides," he warned.

The latest mudslides come at a bad time for El Salvador's authorities, already struggling to cope with another natural disaster over the weekend.

On Saturday, the country's largest volcano, Ilamatepec, erupted for the first time in 100 years. As many as 20,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

The area surrounding the eruption is a major coffee-growing area, and fears for the local farmers' livelihoods are deepening. The head of the Salvadoran coffee research association, Procafe, said that about 10,500 hectares of land mainly planted with coffee trees had been covered in ash from the eruption.

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