Mélida Tróchez, who has rebuilt her house four times following severe floods in Honduras, tells Progressio development worker Nuria Zayas her story of perseverance against the odds.
Headlines in Honduran newspapers have been catching my eye this month: “More intense cyclone activity expected this year”, ”Heaviest ‘La Niña’ in decades will affect Central America in mid-2011”, “At least 9 hurricanes expected in 2011…” I’d usually think of anonymous victims when reading these kinds of headlines. But nowadays, my first immediate thoughts are for Mélida Tróchez.
Mélida is a 65-year-old lady I met a few weeks ago in the middle of the rainy season. She lives dangerously close to the river in the Coco Community, in Colon, on the northern coast of Honduras. It is an area that often floods, leaving her small house uninhabitable. She has rebuilt her house four times.
So now, as I scan the news, I wonder whether she will be able to handle more rainfall, as forecasted, and whether the river will rise too high for her this year?
A storm too many...
She is an affable and a surprisingly cheerful woman - given her personal circumstances – but she gives me a glance of resignation when she talks about her home. After a big flood destroyed it during “Storm 16” in November 2008, she gave up.
“There it is,” she points to what is left of her house. “I do not intend to rebuild it again. The guano roof is quite resilient. But who knows when those walls will fall down again…”
The flood washed away half the cemetery, she recalls, “with gravestones floating here and there and neighbours desperately looking for their loved ones. We were cut off with no food or drinking water, and lost our clothes and personal belongings."
Losing everything, all over again
"Everything was flooded with mud and water. Thank God we were able to save a pig and a few chickens… but the whole situation was very sad.”
1993, Mélida recalls, was the first time she and her family lost everything. Four neighbours from El Coco community died as no one was prepared for the floods in this part of the community, despite it being most exposed. “At the time I was sick, and both my four-year old son and I had to be rescued by the neighbours. We had to rebuild everything.”
Raising the alarm
Now fortunately, she says, every time the river level rises, someone rings a bell and a team is formed to help those who live in the most dangerous areas.
Ever since the 2008 floods, she has lived in her son’s house, next to hers, a bit further from the river but still a very vulnerable place to live; so vulnerable that its doors were pulled out by the heavy winds that year. Now she shares the house with five more family members and it’s quite crowded.
Why not move house?
The house does not have a stove and Mélida’s stuff is piled up in her old house with no walls. “We have been given materials for construction and have been advised not to build houses near the river, but people still do,” she says.
Despite these risks, many people in the community are reluctant to move to safer locations. One reason is they get an income working at nearby palm plantations.
Empty promises and no way out
Plus, according to Mélida, the Council promised to resettle them, but eventually did not, arguing there was no plot of land available as no one was selling it.
Be that as it may, she tells me: “After the floods we just clean up and return to our homes. We are always watching and ready to expect whatever might happen as we have no way out.”
The bigger picture
With natural disasters an ever present threat to Honduran people, measures to cope with such risks seem all the more vital. How can we best face this climate change challenge in El Coco?, I ask my colleague Rafael Urbáez, a development worker on the northern coast.
He tells me that the bottom line is devising a comprehensive risk reduction strategy that goes beyond the the immediate need for safer housing.
Tools to escape poverty
“More important than building new housing for victims is giving them the tools they need to escape poverty and earn a living. This way they will have the resources to find alternatives in the event of a disaster and be able to access better housing,” he stresses.
“All too often,” says Rafael, “people in vulnerable communities are not willing to move to safer housing in other areas if that means leaving their crops or their source of income behind. That is why working towards disaster risk reduction for crops goes hand in hand with disaster risk reduction for housing. The problem must be tackled comprehensively.”
A two-pronged approach, protecting crops and homes
With that in mind, Popol Nah Tun, a Progressio partner organization Rafael recently started working with, is putting in place a risk reduction project in the municipality of Balfate, also on the country’s northern coast. The goal is to improve farming infrastructure so producers can farm without fearing the impacts of floods and other extreme weather events.
Partners at Popol have built contour barriers that help slow down run-off water from rain. In addition to reducing soil erosion, these barriers help store more water in the soil, maintaining humidity for the crops.
Vegetation barriers, such as bamboo and other trees, are also doing their part to lower crop vulnerability. And so is the installation of sewage systems and the betterment of roads – roads which throughout the rainy season become nearly impassable - for the benefit of 17 communities.
Battling with an unprovoked opponent
Although building new housing for all those affected by the impacts of climate change is not feasible, Popol has started constructing eleven new houses for the worst hit as a complementary, not a backbone measure.
According to the UN Development Programme, Honduras is more vulnerable to hurricanes than any other country in the world, and the record of floods in El Coco community just gives us evidence of that.
A mother of eight and current carer of two granddaughters, Mélida’s life shows she has fought unjust battles all her life. I do hope this time, sooner rather than later, she will be able to reduce her vulnerability and win the adaptation battle against climate change - a battle she did nothing to provoke.
Photo: Mélida Tróchez and the house she rebuilt four times before giving up and moving in with her son's family. (Photo ©Nuria Zayas/Progressio)