While climate change will leave no region unscathed, Latin America’s location and multitude of low- and middle-income countries means Central and South American countries will be some of the nations most affected by changes in global weather patterns — and among those nations, the already-vulnerable country of Honduras faces some of the most serious threats.
Honduras’ climate and position between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans makes it especially susceptible to a wide range of climate-related disasters including hurricanes, tropical storms, floods and rainfall-triggered landslides. Not only do these disasters erode economic development and cost millions in damage, but they also claim too many lives in this small nation of 7.9 million.
According to a Germanwatch report, Honduras topped the list of countries most affected by climate change in the period between 1992 and 2011. During those 19 years, Honduras saw 60 extreme weather events and averaged 329 climate change-related deaths per year.
In fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch drifted up from the Caribbean Sea and unleashed a fury of rain on Honduras. The official death toll rose to more than 5,000 (with thousands more declared missing) as the storm unleashed devastating landslides, record-breaking rainfall and caused billions of dollars in damage. Almost 16 years later, some parts of the country have still not fully recovered from the storm.
Hurricane Mitch also dealt a devastating blow to the Honduran economy, doing serious harm to vital sectors like agriculture and housing. President Carlos Flores famously opined that the hurricane set Honduras’ economy back by 50 years.
Although hurricanes and tropical storms are often associated with heavy wind, much of the damage from Hurricane Mitch came instead from the unprecedented amount of rain. Rain associated with tropical storms can trigger landslides — and for shantytowns and flimsy houses built on hillsides, this can prove fatal. In October 2008, heavy rainfall from a tropical depression demolished 24,000 houses, destroyed 79,000 acres of crops and forced 19,000 people to evacuate from their homes in the capital of Tegucigalpa. Similarly, in August 2013, landslides triggered by heavy rains in Northern Honduras killed six children when mud and debris buried the house where they were playing.
The potential effects of climate change on rainfall are not yet fully clear to scientists, but some evidence suggests a warmer climate will produce fewer but more intense periods of rain. Even if it rains less, the increase in intensity of rainfall will continue to cause more landslides and more fatalities — particularly in poor and rural communities in Honduras.
Climate scientists are still debating whether hurricanes—also major produces of rain—will increase in frequency or intensity, but neither of those scenarios bode well for Honduras.
While the majority of the countries that make up Latin America bear very little responsibility for the factors contributing to our warming Earth, the region is still attempting to mitigate risk through plans like the 100×100. Financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, this Honduran initiative sought to complete 100 projects in 100 days. In shantytowns located in Tegucigalpa, for example, this meant building bridges over rivers that normally flood during rainy season and designating new evacuation routes in case of natural disasters.
A report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed our worst fears: the effects of climate change are here to stay. It may be too late to reverse the trend, but there is still time to focus on minimizing the effects so that nations like Honduras are not forced to pay the price for the damage caused by other countries.