THE ERUPTION of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala on Sunday killed at least 75 people. But with lava still flowing and relief workers still struggling to make their way into the areas hardest hit, that toll is likely to rise.
While Trinidad and Tobago nationals in Guatemala have luckily escaped unharmed, the volcano’s eruption and the high death toll is a reminder to all nations of the awesome power of nature and of the need to have adequate disaster response systems in place.
The eruption surprised many, but the Fuego volcano has, in fact, been one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It has a history of eruptions that can be traced as far back as the 16th century. More recently, the volcano erupted in 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2015. The relatively high frequency of eruptions suggests the Guatemalan state had a duty to be particularly vigilant.
When the dust settles, it must assess how well its monitoring and warning systems worked in the lead-up to and days after the disaster. Meanwhile, all focus must be on the ongoing rescue effort. More than 1.7 million people have been affected, with some 3,000 evacuated.
Up to yesterday, about 200 people were still unaccounted for, according to Guatemala’s disaster relief agency. Officials at our Ministry of Foreign and Caricom Affairs must liaise with their diplomatic counterparts in the region to ensure all TT nationals are accounted for and to extend any assistance which may be deemed appropriate.
All eyes will also be on how the country recovers given the risk of the disaster ushering a new period of instability given the country’s long and bloody history. While Guatemala is well-known as the location of what was once the bedrock of the Mayan civilization, its modern history has been checkered with instability. It has suffered from civil strife, with a series of dictatorships and failed revolutions.
However, since a United Nations-negotiated peace accord in 1996, the country has seen some economic growth as well as successful democratic elections. At the same time, it continues to struggle with poverty, crime, and drug trade activity. As of 2016, Guatemala ranks at number 125 in the Human Development Index, classed as having “medium human development”. By way of comparison, TT ranks at number 65, in the class of “high human development”.
TT does not have any major volcanic outcrops, but we, too, are vulnerable to potentially deadly disasters. In 1997, a mud volcano erupted at Piparo. Though there were no fatalities, there was great damage. About 31 families were displaced. Cars and homes were buried under a square mile of mud that hardened into a mass of concrete-like clay.
As we come to terms with the horror in Guatemala, we cannot afford to be complacent