Hurricanes Mitch And Georges
Disasters And Natural Resources:
When Handed Lemons, Make Lemonade

by Mike Benge, USAID, Washington DC

Much of the damage caused by the recent disasters from Hurricanes Mitch and Georges in the Caribbean and Central America was blamed on wide scale deforestation and poorly planned housing. Millions of homes were damaged or destroyed, and massive destruction of infrastructure took place. Natural disasters are inevitable; however, damage caused by future disasters can be reduced by careful planning of new housing and the rehabilitation of deforested and degraded lands that form catchments and watersheds for housing developments, urban areas, and important infrastructure. Billions of dollars of aid will be spent in rehabilitating these devastated areas. Simultaneously, these disasters provide windows of opportunity that should be exploited, and as the saying goes, when handed lemons, make lemonade.

It is incumbent upon donors to be innovative in their thinking and planning on how to use their resources. It would be wise for donors and host-governments to protect these expenditures by investing in the rehabilitation of catchment areas and watersheds to protect urban areas and provide potable water, reforesting watersheds behind dams which generate electricity, and revitalizing and protecting mangrove areas. Healthy mangroves and coral reefs protect shorelines against sea surges. Taking these actions will reduce the scale of damage caused by future storms--similar to an insurance policy to protect investments.


Deforestation was a contributing factor to the extensive damage from the recent hurricanes in Central America and the Caribbean. Deforestation greatly decreases the absorptive capacity of the soils and tree roots no longer anchor the soil. Banana and plantain plantations that provide a large number of jobs and export dollars were virtually wiped out. Nonetheless in Honduras, "The cropped sites with vegetation contours, rock walls and tree fallows withstood the storm quite well, but sites that did not have these investments were devastated by massive landslides."1 An increased use of tree windbreaks surrounding and within plantations would have substantially reduced damage and economic loss.

Rainfall in some areas did exceed the capacity of the soil and capability of the vegetation to stop the massive run-off. Resulting soil erosion exacerbated the damage and prolonged the floods by filling up channels that normally accelerate drainage to the sea. It will take years for the sediment to move though the drainage systems. Because the carrying capacity of the streams and rivers have been decreased, flooding will become more frequent even from smaller storms. This makes it even more important to plant erosion control barriers and reforest catchment and watershed areas to decrease runoff and further siltation in order to decrease this risk.

Also, a large amount of damage resulted from poorly or un-planned expansion of urban areas, where houses were built on slopes and on unstable soils. Since many of the damaged houses were built on flood plains, if these houses are rebuilt in the same places they will be susceptible to flooding even from much smaller storms due to the sedimentation of drainage systems. Poorly constructed roads further undermined hillside stability. These roads funneled runoff and exacerbated erosion and mudslides in catchment areas that fed into housing areas.

A great fear of many is that the extensive destruction of housing from the recent hurricanes will result in the cutting of large amounts trees making additional areas vulnerable to future storm damage.

Underlying causes of deforestation

There are many causes of deforestation, including conversion to agriculture and logging for export; however, in many of the urban areas in developing countries, trees are mainly cut for building materials and fuel. Wood and charcoal are most often the main source of fuel for cooking, heat, and small industries; e.g., bakeries, cleaners, distilleries. Deforestation in these areas is a tragedy of the "commons," and wood is seen as a free commodity. Most often, government agencies either lack the capacity or the political will to police these areas to prevent cutting, and feel that they cannot deprive the people of these basic necessities. Until (a) alternative fuels and devices are provided to reduce consumption of wood/charcoal (such as natural gas and improved charcoal stoves2), (b) sustainable sources of wood are made available,3 and (c) the tenure and management responsibility of these areas are clearly defined, there is little chance of getting ahead of the curve in reforesting these areas.

Crosscutting issues

Energy is the single most crosscutting issue in these disasters; wood/charcoal energy as well as dams that generate electricity are both dependent upon sustained natural resources. Electricity is needed for economic development--urban dwellings, industries and education. Deforestation of the watersheds of these dams has reduced the generation capacity and the productive life because of heavy siltation. The heavy rains associated with the hurricanes rapidly filled these dams to capacity. Because of poor planning and control, massive amounts of water was released from the dams that greatly increased the flooding and the destruction of urban areas below the dams. In order to sustain electricity generation and supply urban areas with needed power, it is necessary to reforest the watersheds above these dams.

When handed lemons, make lemonade

The large number of people that lost their livelihood, both in the agricultural and industrial sectors, and their homes because of the storms is tragic. However, this also provides an opportunity to provide on-the-job training in manual skills, such as carpentry and masonry, and create jobs to rebuild houses. Additional work can be created to plant living hedgerows and trees to control erosion in catchment areas, watersheds, and along roads and stream banks. There is also the opportunity to develop community organizations and improve relationships within communities to create self-help projects including neighbors helping neighbors rebuild each other's houses; urban forestry groups to plant trees; and riparian users associations to manage catchment/watershed areas for potable water supplies.

Additionally, many of the urban housing areas lacked adequate sanitation and supplies of potable water. Rebuilding these areas offers donors and host-governments the opportunity to correct these inadequacies by funding the installation of water-sealed toilets,5 and digging wells for potable water.

Food for work

The storms destroyed crops in many areas and put large numbers of people out of work. Although immediate food relief is needed, giving away food for prolonged periods often creates as many problems as it solves. Food-for-work allows people to maintain their dignity, while providing a way to pay for labor needed to rebuild housing, repair roads, create and construct erosion control barriers, and plant trees for both urban forestry and catchment/watershed rehabilitation. A special focus should be placed on the rehabilitation of areas that provide services to urban populations; e.g., electricity generating dams, and catchment areas for potable water.

Subsidized housing construction programs should be conditioned on avoiding reconstruction in hazard prone areas; e.g., flood plains and unstable slopes. To make this determination, the areas should be surveyed and mapped. Land that has no apparent use and relative little value, such as steep hillsides, flood plains, and wetlands, are common sites for informal settlements. The increase spread of human settlements into fragile ecological zones destabilize natural ecosystems. In unplanned communities, the built environment can block natural drainage patterns, contributing to erosion and flooding that can destroy property and lives. Stagnant, undrained pools of water can become breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects. Artificial drainage systems can be installed to help channel stormwater runoff and reduce its destructive force. Effective drainage can also reduce the presence of stagnant standing water that hosts disease-carrying insects.
Because residents of informal settlements rarely own the land they live on and do not pay taxes to support urban services and infrastructure, municipalities often neglect to include them in service provision schemes. As a result, water is generally in short supply and unpure, sanitation services are primitive, and solid waste collection is limited. The impact on the environment and on residents' health and living conditions can be profound.

Community-based approaches

Rebuilding housing with community-based approaches allows interventions to be tailored to local circumstances and income levels. Community-based approaches assures that solutions are matched to people's priorities, addresses problems at their source, it empowers the settlement's residents and mobilizes resources and generates income within the community. Ultimately, community-based interventions build upon and enhance local capacity by promoting community cohesiveness, indigenous leadership skills, and local self-reliance.

Self-help and participatory low-cost housing--Two types of low-cost housing are wood-frame and Cinva-Ram brick houses. Building these house would require of a large number of people trained in manual skills, such as carpentry and masonry. This is best accomplished by a program to train trainers. First you train a core of people on how to train others constructing houses. These trainers then go into communities, and train these people to build houses, neighbors helping to build each other's houses. Again, Food-for-Work can be used to maintain these people during reconstruction.

The Trade and Investment division of USDA has a program that finances workshops on wood-frame housing to promote the use and export of wood products.7 Cinva-Ram earth blocks are made from a mixture of soil and cement compressed in a press-machine easily fabricated in local machine shops. The Cinva-Ram bricks have a consistency and durability somewhat comparable to a kiln-fired brick.

Wood paucity and surplus for housing--In the Dominican Republic, Hurricane Georges resulted in a large blow-down of trees, in excess of local milling capacity. There is a need for an immediate investment in increasing the milling capacity to exploit this resource before the wood rots on the ground. Any additional milling capacity should be installed on a temporary basis under contract and closely supervised to ensure that sound environmental practices are followed. If the milled wood is in excess of needs to rebuild houses in the Dominican Republic, the excess could be exported to wood deficient countries in Central America.

In Central America, there will be a need for a large amount of housing material, such as sawn-wood. If cut locally, it will exacerbate deforestation and make additional areas vulnerable to severe damage from future storms. To prevent further deterioration of the environment, it is recommended that wood be imported from the U.S. In the past, wood has been provided as an emergency relief commodity to El Salvador and Jamaica. Through programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wood products have also been provided under the PL-480 Title 1 Program to Jamaica and Costa Rica, and under the work for progress program to Panama. Wood could also be purchased under USAID's Commercial Import Program.

However, all wood should be treated against insects and rot to increase the life of the houses. Since there may be a fuelwood shortage in some areas, it may be problematic that some of the imported wood is diverted for fuel. Therefore, wood salvaged from destroyed house should be used for this purpose.

Hedgerows, trees and roads

Vetiver Hedgerows--Trees take several years to establish extensive root systems necessary to anchor the soil to prevent slides and reduce erosion, whereas, vetiver grass planted on the contour of hillsides begins reducing erosion within the first year. A recent study in Honduras, shows that erosion was reduced from "92 tons of soil/ha/year on slash-and-burn areas to 0.9 tons/ha/yr on areas protected by vetiver hedgerows."8 Vetiver hedgerows are not invasive, and are propagated by cuttings only.9 There are a number of cooperators in Central America and the Caribbean working with the Vetiver Network,10 and planting materials are available in country. Establishing the hedgerows are labor intensive at first, but require little maintenance after establishment.
Not only do hedgerows mitigate erosion, but they increase the survival, growth and production of trees and annual crops planted behind the hedges by increasing the availability of nutrients and moisture. For example in China, "Tea yields increased by 40% when grown in conjunction with vetiver grass hedges, and vetiver hedges are much cheaper and more effective than terraces."11 Natural terraces begin forming behind vetiver hedges soon after planting. This technology should also work well with coffee. In Central America and the Caribbean, coffee is a very important export crop and the industry employs a large number of people. Much of the coffee is grown in plantation settings that are erosion prone and produce high levels of pollution from chemical fertilizer runoff. Vetiver hedgerows filter these nutrients, keeping them in place and reducing the need for chemical fertilizer application. They also provide mulch to improve soil texture and carbon content.

Vetiver hedgerows can also be very valuable in preventing erosion and water damage within housing areas, when planted between rows of houses and to protect roads in housing areas. This should be coupled with urban tree planting. When planted along embankments and in catchment areas, vetiver hedgerows can also reduce erosion of roadsides. They are also extremely important in reducing stream bank erosion and sediment loads in streams.

Tree selection and urban forestry--Trees for reforestation should be selected for fast-growth and ability to regrow (coppice) after cutting. Regrowth is much faster from the coppiced stump, which would increase wood availability for fuel and other uses. Often local trees do not regrow after cutting, which accelerates deforestation. Leguminous trees have these qualities, and are well suited for reforesting catchment areas and watersheds. For example, Acacia mangium, called the "green machete" in the Dominican Republic because of its good growth on degraded lands, serves as a nurse crop for other tree species and produces marketable timber within eight years.12 Once microclimatic conditions are restored on degrades sites, mixed native species will often reestablish themselves and a mixed species forest will evolve. However, it may be necessary to do enrichment plantings of other species on severely degraded sites at a later date to avoid monocultures.

Trees planted in urban and peri-urban environments have value beyond their aesthetic appeal that is now being recognized and appreciated. Ecological and economic values can be very significant. For example, existing tree cover in urban settings in the United States already provides over $4 billion in annual energy savings with total benefits being much higher. Beyond energy savings, urban forestry can benefit developing countries through cooling urban areas; improving air quality and water quality and quantity; reducing noise, erosion and water runoff; increasing biodiversity; and providing tree products for local use.

Minimum impact roads--The U.S. Agency for International Development, in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service, funded the development of Minimum Impact Rural Roads: A Training Manual with Emphasis on Environmental Planning, Drainage, Slope Stabilization, and Erosion Control (Spanish only),14 and the Forest Service has conducted workshops through Latin America on this subject.

1Thurow, T. 1998. Silver-lining to Hurricane Mitch (in draft). Soil Management Collaborative Research Support Program/Texax A&M University.
2Jones, M., 1989 Energy Efficient Stoves in East Africa: An Assessment of the Kenya Ceramic Jiko (Stove) Program. S&T Office of Energy. U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC.
3de Miranda, R.C. Forest Replacement: An Effective Model to Achieve Sustainability by Fuelwood Consumers. in UNASYLVA (in press). FAO, Rome.
4anon. 1998. Juntos Podemos Cuidarla: Fondo para la Conservacion del Auga. Quite, Ecuador.
___ 1998. Water: Together We Can Care For It! The Nature Conservancy, Quito, Ecuador.
5Benge, M. D., 1990. Participatory Low-Cost Housing. S&T/FENR Agro-forestation Series #36. U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC.
6anon. 1992. Partnership for a Livable Environment. Cooperative Housing Foundation, Washington, DC.i
7Thallon, R. 1991. Graphic Guide to Frame Coonstruction. The Taunton Press. Available from: Mark Hawthorn, USDA Trade and Investment Office, Tel. (202) 690-1858
8Toness, A.S., T.L. Thurow and H.El. Sierra. April 1998. Sustainable Management of Tropical Steeplands: An Assessment of Terraces as a Soil and Water Conservation Technology. Technical Bulletin No. 98-1. Soil Management Collaborative Research Support Program/Texas A&M University. 52p.
Thurow, T.L. and J.E. Smith, Jr. April 1998. Assessment of Soil and Water Conservation Methods Applied to the Cultivated Steeplands of Southern Honduras. April 1998. Technical Bulletin No. 98-2. Soil Management Collaborative Research Support Program/Texas A&M University. 21p
9National Research Council. 1993. Vetiver Grass: A thin green line against erosion. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.,
10Vetiver Network. Joan Miller, Coordinadora - La Red Latinoamericana del Vetiver,
Apdo. 173-2020, Centro Postal Zapote, San Jose, Costa Rica;
Tel: (506) 224-0960; FAX: (560) 222-6556;
correo-electronico: [email protected];
Pagina de Internet:
11Ding Guan Min, Soil and Water Conservation Bureau, Fujian Province, China. in The Vetiver Network Newsletter, No. 18. December 1997. Home page:
12National Research Council. 1983. Mangium and Other Fast-Growing Acacias for the Humid Tropics. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.,
13Benge, M.D. 1996 The Economic and Ecological Value of Trees in Urban Environments. Center for Environment, U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC..
14Keller, G. J. Bauer and M.Aldana. 1996. Minimum Impact Rural Roads: A Training Manual with Emphasis on Environmental Planning, Drainage, Slope Stabilization, and Erosion Control. USAID-USDA Forest Service, Guatemalan Roads Ministry. pp. 800. 
Copies of this paper and other publications shown avove are available from Mike Benge, Global Bureau, Center for Environment, U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC. Tel: (202) 712-4048 
Attached is a paper I wrote (with imput from others in G/ENV) on Hurricanes Mitch and Georges--Disasters and Naatural Resources: when handed lemons, make lemonade.
In the paper,I outline the relationship of degraded natural resources to the extensive damage caused by the hurricanes. I have also identified how the issues of damage and recovery cross cut issues of natural resources management, energy programs and urban planning; the importance of sustained natural resources in the recovery from these disasters and in mitigating damages from future storms; and some innovative approaches in using sustained natural resource management in solving problems caused by the storms. Let me know if you would like any of the referenced documenets. Regards, MikeB