Earthquake survivors at risk from shortage of water

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The Independent US

As roads into El Salvador's hinterland were cleared yesterday, relief workers voiced alarm at the plight of 46,000 destitute survivors whose villages were flattened by last Saturday's massive earthquake.

As roads into El Salvador's hinterland were cleared yesterday, relief workers voiced alarm at the plight of 46,000 destitute survivors whose villages were flattened by last Saturday's massive earthquake.

International rescuers found hungry families sheltering under trees or huddled under rudimentary shacks made from sticks and coffee sacks. Most are utterly destitute after losing their homes and livestock.

Helicopters ferried in the first supplies of water, food, and medicine to refugees in remote eastern provinces who had survived without anything since the tremor struck. This followed a warning by the Pan American Health Organisation that nearly half the total population of 6 million could be without water.

Nights in the highlands are cold, but there is little available to burn for warmth. The badly injured were flown out for medical treatment, although the authorities were warned of the need to set up new mobile clinics on the spot to treat outbreaks of cholera, dengue fever and dysentery. Medical staff were kept busy setting bones broken by fallen masonry and giving injections of antibiotics and tetanus.

There is virtually no hope of finding any more living victims in the rubble across the country and officials expect that the death toll in El Salvador, now estimated at 675, may exceed 1,600. Thousands more are missing and tens of thousands have been left homeless.

At Las Colinas, the housing development near the capital that was hit hardest by landslides after the quake, there was a ripple of optimism when muffled noises were heard beneath the debris and tracker dogs led rescuers to unearth a white poodle. But a frenzy of renewed digging brought no sign of human survivors.

News that a 22-year-old musician, Sergio Moreno, who was dug out after a 38-hour ordeal underground, died soon after doctors amputated his injured leg left the volunteer rescue workers despondent. Anxious to evacuate the site at Las Colinas because continuing tremors threaten to collapse the rest of the hillside, the authorities hastened to empty the makeshift morgue and bury the community's dead in a mass grave.

Relatives were permitted a last chance to sort through a collection of cadavers wrapped in plastic sacks, and were given 30 minutes to retrieve any family member they preferred to bury privately. Even through surgical masks, the stench of death was overpowering.

The President of El Salvador, Francisco Flores, visited Las Colinas and consoled mourners under bright sunshine. "Each generation of Salvadorans has had to face tragedy," Mr Flores said, referring to the deaths inflicted by a 1986 earthquake, followed by a brutal civil war, and then Hurricane Mitch. "We are a stoic, hardworking people full of hope". The President also rejected environmentalists' allegations that felling trees for construction in the area heightened the risk for the middle-class community. "That is totally mistaken," he said. "Las Colinas is very heavily forested." He said that experts attributed the fatal landslide to the extra weight of soil on the hill after winter rains.

International aid and debt relief will help rebuild El Salvador, which officials estimate has suffered damages that will cost at least $1bn to repair. The Pan-American highway is still blocked, and 20 per cent of the country's traffic is at a standstill. More than 18,000 refugees have been evacuated, and one- third of these are sheltering in a single open-air sports stadium on the outskirts of San Salvador, harangued by evangelist preachers over loudspeakers. Many people have requested transfers to quieter shelters. The Public Security ministry has announced that the streets are safe and there were no reports of looting. Citizens continue to sleep outside in the open air as long as aftershocks jolt the country.

Donors, who pledged aid after Hurricane Mitch displaced 1.2 million people across Central America only to see relief programmes delayed as middlemen pocketed the interest, are pressing President Flores to curb corruption. He promised that quake victims will receive funds intended for them and that his administration will act with transparency.

Meanwhile, the UN has begun distributingfood to 150,000 people in El Salvador's six most vulnerable provinces. A fleet of lorries and helicopters is passing out ready-cooked meals of rice and beans in rural areas but Roque Castro, a UN spokesman, said the agency has only enough provisions to last for two weeks. "Some of these people have been trapped without food or water until we got to them," he said, and appealed for international aid to continue the food programme for six months.