Sunday 24 September 2017

The village that's disappearing into the sea

Biologist Gustavo Cabrera shows how much sea levels have risen
Biologist Gustavo Cabrera shows how much sea levels have risen
Fisherman Santos Francisco Diaz Romero from Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels
Candido Zaldivar Flores pictured with his wife Elvia Murcia de Zaldivar in the hut on the local church grounds where they now live. Their home was destroyed by waves during a storm at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
The beach at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes

Paul Melia in Omoa, Honduras

A PIPE protrudes from the beach, spurting drinking water into the oncoming surf. It once fed a house, since washed away by the sea, one of 23 lost to rising sea levels in Cuyamel sandbar in Omoa, Honduras.

This community of more than 500 people has existed for more than a century, its inhabitants sustained by agriculture and fishing.

But palm trees buffeted by the Caribbean sea, their roots barely clinging to what remains of the soil below, now mark the spot where homes once stood.

There is no future here -within a year, villagers expect to be forced to flee their houses as the ocean swamps what was once a thriving community.

"The really big problems started around 10 years ago, but really since 2009 when there was an earthquake and the land sank below sea level," Gustavo Cabreru (49), a biologist working with the community since 2001, says.

"All the houses that used to be near the shore are under the sea. The families have had to move house and live with relatives. Twenty three houses have already gone, home to 60 people.

"The sea is advancing at around a metre a month, but between September and January we have lost 35 metres. This area was green grass last November. It's now covered in sand. Two years ago we believed the community would last two more years (until 2019). Now we think we won't last a year."

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Honduras is among the most vulnerable countries in the world in relation to climate change. It has been affected by more than 50 socio-natural disasters between 1980 and 2014, resulting in more than 15,000 deaths.

Rising sea levels are a particular issue for Cuyamel, and the extent of the devastation already experienced is startling. The football pitch which once brought the community together is gone, replaced by sand and waste including medical detritus and plastic bottles, washed onshore from a nearby river.

One mother says the waste which washes onshore is "worrying", and causes skin rashes.

"We organise a clean-up but no sooner is it done than more plastic comes," she said.

The road into the community is gone too. A drive along the beachfront now provides access. Animals cannot be left to graze, because the salt content in the land is too high.

Street vendors pictured selling their tortilla’s on the streets of El Progreso , Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Street vendors pictured selling their tortilla’s on the streets of El Progreso , Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
American Franchise Pizza Hut in El Progreso, Honduras. Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
A street vendor pictured selling her tortillas on the streets of El Progreso , Honduras. Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Doris Yamileth Meza Zavala from El Progreso in Honduras, holds a picture of her brother Marvin Leonel Meza Zavala who has been missing for the last 27 years. Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
The streets of El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Doris Yamileth Meza Zavala from El Progreso in Honduras, holds a picture of her brother Marvin Leonel Meza Zavala who has been missing for the last 27 years.Trócaire are working with their partners FONAMIH in El Progreso to help Migrants. Frank Mc Grath
American fast food franchises on streets of El Progreso, Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Angela Aranda who sells dried fish from her street stall in El Progreso Honduras, holds a picture of her daughter Hilda Aracely Aranda who is missing. Frank Mc Grath
Palm oil tree plantation near El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Sugar cane plantation near El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Journalist Leonardo Guevara who works with Radio Progreso who is living with a death threat for his reporting on Migration and Resourse rights.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
The streets of El Progreso, Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Street vendors pictured selling their tortilla’s on the streets of El Progreso , Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Journalist Leonardo Guevara who works with Radio Progreso who is living with a death threat for his reporting on Migration and Resourse rights.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Angela Aranda holds a picture of her daughter Hilda Aracely Aranda who is missing and Juana Oliva Vasques holds a photograph of her son , Carlos Humberto Murillo Oliva who is also missing.Trócaire are working with their partners FONAMIH in El Progreso to help Migrants. Frank Mc Grath
Two men pray on the streets of El Progreso, Honduras. Frank Mc Grath
The streets of El Progreso, Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Doris Yamileth Meza Zavala from El Progreso in Honduras, holds a picture of her brother Marvin Leonel Meza Zavala who has been missing for the last 27 years.Trócaire are working with their partners FONAMIH in El Progreso to help Migrants Frank Mc Grath
Angela Aranda holds a picture of her daughter Hilda Aracely Aranda who is missing and Juana Oliva Vasques holds a photograph of her son , Carlos Humberto Murillo Oliva who is also missing. Frank Mc Grath
Mountains showing the scars of deforestation in the mountains near El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Sugar cane plantation near El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Palm oil tree plantation covers the top of a mountain near El Progreso in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
The beach at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes. Frank Mc Grath
A school boy cycles to school in Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Biologist Gustavo Cabrera shows how much the sea levels have risen at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras , in the background are some boulders which were once in front of a house. Frank Mc Grath
A lady hangs out her washing in Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Candido Zaldivar Flores pictured with his wife Elvia Murcia Dezaldivar in the hut on the local church grounds where they now live. Frank Mc Grath
Candido Zaldivar Flores pictured with his wife Elvia Murcia Dezaldivar and their great grand daughter Kritza [4] at the church on whose grounds they now live, after their home was destroyed by waves during a storm at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras . Frank Mc Grath
School boys cycle along the beach, in Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Two year old Madeline Lopez and her mum Gabriela from Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula in Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Candido Zaldivar Flores pictured with his wife Elvia Murcia Dezaldivar in the hut on the local church grounds where they now live.Frank Mc Grath
Fisherman Santos Francisco Diaz Romero from Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels Frank Mc Grath
Four year old Kritza, holds an old picture of her great grand parents Candido Zaldivar Flores and Elvia Murcia Dezaldivar outside their home before it was destroyed by waves during a storm at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras .Frank Mc Grath
A man and his horse make their way along the road near Cuyamel, in Honduras.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
The beach at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes. Frank Mc Grath
A young girl and her chick, at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Twelve year old Javier Bargas pictured on the community soccer pitch which has been destroyed by rubbish brought by sea flooding at Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes.Frank Mc Grath
A herdsman and his cattle near Cuyamel in Honduras. Trócaire are working with along with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of the Cuyamel coastal community in Honduras, who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Fisherman Santos Francisco Diaz Romero from Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Fisherman Santos Francisco Diaz Romero from Cuyamel near San Pedro Sula, Honduras where Trócaire are working with their local partners CASM Omoa to help residents of a coastal community who are losing their home to rising sea levels. Frank Mc Grath
Eight year old Maria sits on the steps to a house which was destroyed by storm surge at Cuyamel in Honduras . Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
The view from a house which was destroyed by storm surge at Cuyamel in Honduras . Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
The interior of one of the houses in the Esquipulas Bordo [ A bordo is a slum built on a flood plain] in San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Frank Mc Grath
Eighteen year old Anna Riviera pictured at her home in the Esquipulas Bordo [ A bordo is a slum built on a flood plain] in San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Ingrid Cuevas [12] and Emilia Fuentes [11] pictured in the Esquipulas Bordo. Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Four year old Alvaro Jose Cueva pictured with his friend Steven Ramirez [4] in the Esquipulas Bordo [ A bordo is a slum built on a flood plain] in San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Frank Mc Grath
Eighteen year old Brenda Ramos pictured with her 6 week old baby Dominga, in the Esquipulas Bordo [ A bordo is a slum built on a flood plain] in San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Frank Mc Grath
Young Mothers, Erica Roxana Ramos [18] pictured with her son Axel [10 months] and Eighteen year old Brenda Ramos with her 6 week old baby Dominga, in the Esquipulas Bordo Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Children play in the Esquipulas BordoTrócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction.Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Young Mothers,Eighteen year old Brenda Ramos pictured with her 6 week old baby Dominga, and Erica Roxana Ramos [18] with her son Axel [10 months] in the Esquipulas Bordo Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Raul Leira [68] who lives in the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Frank Mc Grath
Daily life in the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Frank Mc Grath
Rubbish strewn river flood plain at the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Rubbish strewn river flood plain at the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Frank Mc Grath 26/2/17
Kyhesha-Lee Joughin (3)

What's remarkable is that a decade ago, the sea was 800 metres away. The community doesn't know what's coming next.

"We don't know what's going to happen because the sea is very treacherous. Right now it's peaceful and calm but it can change very suddenly," Gustavo said.

"There used to be a sand dune to protect the community but it's now gone. There is no buffer zone. Many of the plants are dry because the salt from the sea stops anything from growing."

Between Cuyamel and the nearby Motagua sandbar, around 80 families comprising 522 people must find a new home in the near future. Some have already been forced to do so.

They include Candido Zaldivar Flores, his wife Elvia Murcia de Zaldivar and their family, forced to flee at 3am last January and now living in a makeshift shelter at the back of a local church.

That night, six houses in Cuyamel were destroyed.

Teacher Miriam Maribel Campos Pérez (31) and her daughter Maria José Gonzalez Campos (8) have also been affected, and will have to find a new area to settle shortly.

But there is an option. The community is attempting to buy a plot of land, and the landowner appears keen to sell, but they are competing with a company with deep pockets which has earmarked the land for palm oil.

Local people are not only looking for the government to buy it, but also to provide power, roads, water and infrastructure. While the municipality doesn't have the money, it is lobbying central government for funds.

Despite the grave risk facing the community, there is little support from government, Miriam says.

"Politicians have known for several years about the danger but have done nothing about the problem and now the situation is really bad. One of the reasons we want to buy the plot of land not so far away is so the community will live together. I don't know what will happen but I hope we stay together."

But the people are taking action to keep themselves safe.

Read more: 'Waves destroyed our home of 42 years ... we had to run'

Irish aid agency Trócaire, with the support of local government and its partner CASM, has funded the dredging of a canal which allows families to be evacuated to a safe point.

It is also supporting the community's efforts to secure a new home, and works with the Honduran Climate Change Alliance to raise awareness of the problems.

And if the cliché that not all heroes wear capes holds true, then the community co-ordinator Santos Francisco Diaz Romero (50) is living proof.

Last January, he was in charge of the rescue effort which helped keep people safe, organising the evacuation from 6am.

"The first thing we did was take out the children and elderly people in two trips. The boat can hold 19 people, and we travelled around 5km (by the canal) to a safe place where vehicles were waiting for them. To evacuate the entire community took at least 15 trips."

His home, which is built on stilts, is a muster point.

"Because my house is quite high, my family is the last to be evacuated. That can lead to some problems in the family. Usually the children are panicking at that moment, and try to grab my legs. I try and keep them calm and give them sweets, but they know I'm in charge. They treat me like St Nicholas," he said.

"I'm really happy to help. This is a dangerous place and everybody has to support each other."

The reason why he has a boat to help rescue his fellow citizens is because of opportunities in the US, which could be gone under the immigration policies and border crackdown threatened by US President Donald Trump.

"I was working as an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles for one and a half years from 2005," he said.

"I went to get money to buy the boat. That was the only objective. I was working in construction and as a plumber, and used to earn $80 (€75.6) a day as a tiler."

He is also a healthcare worker, and can and has administered medicine and delivered babies. He has successfully lobbied to bring electricity to the community, and all the efforts to keep families intact now risk being for nothing.

"It's so frustrating that everything we worked so hard for is being lost to the sea," he said.

Donations can be made to Trócaire at AIB, 7-12 Dame Street, Dublin 2. Account number 98861116, sort code 93-20-86.

Irish Independent

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