Thursday, June 18, 2009

8,200 Locations in Guatemala at Risk from Landslides

Forty percent of the country, 8,200 locations, are at risk from landslides due to rain and earthquakes. Disaster relief groups are on alert and ready to respond to any emergency, but nobody wants to talk about prevention.

Enrique Molina, head of seismology at the National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH), reports that geological conditions, soil composition, level of inclination of the terrain, and the moisture, result in 40 percent of the country being susceptible to landslides.

Rain and earthquakes are the main triggers of collapse. Caution is recommended for drivers who travel on the country's roads, especially in times of heavy rainfall.

"An earth tremor during the rainy season doubles the risk from mudslides and landslides due to the saturation of the soil with moisture. If the 1976 earthquake had occurred during the months of greater rainfall, the tragedy would have been much worse," explained Molina.

Another factor increasing the disaster risk is population growth, particularly when people build on slopes or sloping areas.

The areas most susceptible to landslides due to inclination of the terrain are the mountainous areas, including the volcanic areas and areas such as the Sierra de las Minas. Throughout the country there are the scars of past landslides.

The National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (Conred) identified 8.200 places at risk from flooding and collapse in the country.

Juan Pablo Oliva, director of risk management for Conred, says the risk is greater this year due to the increasing magnitude of earthquakes. He stresses that the risk has always existed but the construction of human settlements in high risk areas means that each passing year increases the number of possible victims.

A report by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources reports that 64 percent of the country has a high level of soil degradation. 70 percent of the country is deforested. Each year there are between 80 million and 90 million metric tons of soil lost to erosion, 10 times the average of other countries. This is because of the activity of people and the population is doubling every 20 years.


Concepción Chiquirichapa, San Martín Sacatepéquez, and San Juan Ostuncalco are three municipalities of Quetzaltenango where large landslides are feared due to the sandy soil.

Due to deforestation, Cerro Quemado in Almolonga, Quetzaltenango, suffers constant mudslides and major landslides are feared.

The route between Zunil and Cantel is almost constantly blocked from landslides along the road.


Cerro Lec, between San Andrés Semetabaj and Panajachel, Sololá, has several recently discovered cracks and residents of nearby aldeas fear collapses.

In San Lucas Tolimán, the volcano of the same name has areas of loose soil due to intense deforestation and could slide in heavy rains.

Due to steep slopes, residents of the village Pujujil in the departmental capital fear landslides occur when the rainy season comes.

Recently, an earthquake triggered a slide at kilometer 155 of the Trans American Highway at Nahualá, which blocked the road.

San Marcos

Cerro Jocol in the village of Las Barrancas, San Pedro Sacatepéquez, San Marcos, is a constant threat to the people who lived through the 2003 tragedy when 22 people died during a large collapse.

In the same town, the aldea Piedra Grande is at risk from a nearby hill where a collapse killed dozens of people in 2005.

Near kilometer 133.5 of the route to Las Verapaces, saturation moisture is causing the soil surface to slide and the pavement has sunk by half a meter. The concern is that if this road collapses the Verapaces will be cut off from the capital.

Cerro Los Chorros suffered a slide last January 4th that left 34 dead. Residents are worried that it will happen again. Despite the risk, the road is still used because the other option means a 1-1/2 hour walk.

Last August, a slide on the hill at Las Casas, Cobán, buried a house.


Alejandro Maldonado, executive secretary of Conred indicates that it is working on the strengthening of embankments where it considers that collapse is most likely. Continuous studies are done where the movement of soil has occured such as La Union, Zacapa, and San Cristóbal Verapaz , Alta Verapaz.

Conred has also acquired the ability to monitor landslides by satellite. Conred also says that the mayors in areas at risk are kept informed of risk factors such as rain or floods.

Certain social organizations are of the opinion that the government has no plans to prevent or mitigate landslide disasters so we can expect the death toll to rise each year.