"The region is preparing for a number of difficult years"
Hurricanes Eta and Iota have caused widespread damage as well as numerous deaths and injuries across Central America. Switzerland immediately dispatched a team of disaster management experts to Guatemala and released CHF 2 million to address the urgent needs of communities in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Flisch Jörimann is coordinating the relief efforts from the Cooperation Office in Managua.
People in Guatemala rescuing their belongings. Hurricanes Iota and Eta have destroyed the livelihoods of many people in the affected regions. © Keystone
Mr Jörimann, where is assistance needed most urgently in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala?
The region was hit by two massive hurricanes within the space of ten days, each causing unbelievable destruction. Over five million people have been affected, with hundreds of thousands having lost all their belongings and their livelihoods You have to imagine: the communities affected by Eta and Iota were exposed to high winds, heavy rain, noise and cold temperatures for up to 20 hours straight.
People waited to be rescued for days without access to clean water or food. The storms are also responsible for a lot of trauma among the population. Their immediate basic needs cover the usual: over the days and likely weeks to come, priority will be given to clean water, food, emergency shelters and covering basic medical needs. It is already necessary, however, to consider communities' medium- and long-term requirements, such as housing, repairing the destroyed infrastructure and reconstruction. The region is preparing for a number of difficult years.
Swiss Humanitarian Aid has immediately dispatched a team of specialists to Guatemala. What is their role there?
I'd like to start by saying that Guatemala had already previously asked for international assistance and it was already experiencing significant problems in certain areas – for example food insecurity – even before the storms. In addition, international aid efforts have tended not to focus on Guatemala, which is why we consider Swiss involvement here to be extremely beneficial.
The team's mission comprises three cornerstones: coordination, clarifying/assessing needs and initiating emergency relief efforts. We aim to identify any thematic and regional issues and to direct targeted aid – in coordination with the authorities and humanitarian organisations – to the most vulnerable communities.
How is it possible to send a team to the affected regions so quickly?
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Swiss Humanitarian Aid have maintained a network of emergency aid specialists in the greater Latin America region for more than 15 years now, which can be activated locally as required. Short travel times and being familiar with the circumstances faced by these people are a real advantage in these situations; once again, we were able to rely on the solidarity of the SDC office and embassies in the greater region, who provided staff to assist with these activities. The team was also reinforced with employees of local NGOs, who are also part of this network and whose local knowledge is extremely valuable.
You are responsible for coordinating the relief efforts. What are your main tasks in this regard?
I am stationed in the regional Cooperation Office (CO) in Managua and liaise directly with the CO in Honduras as well as the embassies in Guatemala and Costa Rica. The fact that we are dealing with a regional crisis of course makes it more difficult to coordinate the various lines of action across Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. My job here is to provide Bern with a consolidated picture – with information from our partners and local sources – from the affected regions as a basis for them to make decisions, and then to organise the actions decided upon and to implement them working together with the Swiss representations in the region. This also includes deploying regional teams and – specifically in the case of Nicaragua – coordinating with local authorities to procure and transport relief supplies. I am also involved in implementing a bilateral emergency aid project with the Red Cross. This requires the involvement of all Swiss representations in the region, including the embassy in Costa Rica, which is less affected by the crisis.
The FDFA has released CHF 2 million to support the efforts. One million will fund emergency operations in Nicaragua and Guatemala, while Swiss Humanitarian Aid will contribute one million to a UN appeal for help for Honduras. How will this money be used specifically?
The money given to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent and UN appeals will be used to cover the most urgent basic needs in the most severely affected countries. Switzerland is helping to ensure that around 1.5 million people receive the help they need with regard to food security, access to clean water and emergency shelter, as well as healthcare. In the case of Nicaragua, a bilateral project run by the local Red Cross organisation will ensure that 2,000 families in two of the country's most isolated and vulnerable regions now have access to clean water and food. The varying conditions in the countries affected allow us to define different approaches to achieve our goal: to quickly and efficiently provide the affected communities with the assistance they need so as to reduce suffering.
How long do you expect the Swiss Humanitarian Aid measures to last? And how will Switzerland then support the reconstruction efforts?
The contributions made by the SDC will cover operations lasting at least 18 months. Even in this emergency phase, we have already factored certain medium- and long-term goals into our planning – for example as part of a regional project focused on resilient infrastructure. We intend to use our Swiss expertise to make a real contribution to regional reconstruction planning.
As is often the case, it is while providing emergency assistance that the groundwork is laid for activities over the medium and long term. Our many years of working together with authorities from all Central American countries puts us in a good position in this respect. At present, it is impossible to predict the extent of the damage caused by Eta and Iota in a region already impacted by COVID-19, economic and socio-political crises; it goes without saying, however, that after more than 40 years of working in Central America, we will ensure our actions uphold Switzerland's tradition of humanitarian solidarity.