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Lake of pollution hampers Tegucigalpa clean-up

Disaster in Honduras

CLEAN-UP EFFORTS after Hurricane Mitch in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa are being hampered by a 'lake' of heavily polluted water which has backed up in the city.

Engineers are investigating options to clear the water but say the operation could take up to a month, prolonging the risk of disease and preventing businesses from reopening.

Hurricane Mitch saw winds of over 300km/h lash Central America earlier this month. In Tegucigalpa the floods that followed washed thousands of tonnes of mud, rock and trees down the River Choluteca into the centre of the city. Debris has formed a natural dam where the river narrows in the Comayaguela district, leaving the water level 15m higher than before the floods.

Early plans to use explosives to clear the debris have been dropped amid fears that the sudden rush of water would cause renewed flooding downstream. Engineers will now slowly remove material from the top of the dam using army excavators, as most of the region's major construction companies have transferred plant and equipment outside the city to repair roads and bridges.

Ministry of Public Works, Transport & Housing project manager George Reyes said only superficial clean-up work was possible because of the shortage of resources. He added: 'We don't know at the moment what kind of mess we are going to find when we evacuate the water.'

Aid workers fear that high concentrations of heavy metals from factories destroyed in the floods, plus bacteria from broken sewers and corpses will cause a major health hazard.

However, although draining the water slowly increases the risk of disease in Tegucigalpa, Reyes claimed it may avert a major pollution incident downstream where aid agencies have set up emergency water supplies drawing from the river.

'A controlled release of the water will help to aerate it and allow the sun to break down some of the bacteria,' he explained.

Current health problems in the city are being made worse by the lack of clean drinking water. The main distribution pipe was cut during the floods and the United Nations estimates that only 22% of the population is receiving water. Work to rebuild the water supply system, sewers, roads and homes is expected to cost around 220M.

Only a few poignant signs of human activity remain - a soggy shoe, a broken 45 rpm record and the boot of a battered old Toyota sticking out of the morass.

Walking along the devastated banks of the River Choluteca it is hard to imagine that the mass of mud and rock left behind by Hurricane Mitch was once covered with homes and factories. Only a few poignant signs of human activity remain - a soggy shoe, a broken 45 rpm record and the boot of a battered old Toyota sticking out of the morass.

Turning the corner into Avenue Paulino Valladores, the air is suddenly filled with the stench of death. 'The morgue was totally flooded out,' explains student Roger Regaldo. Further away a mother and her teenage daughter clamber over a pile of rocks on their way back from a shopping trip, their bare legs covered in black sludge.

Hurricane Mitch caught everyone in Tegucigalpa off guard - at no time in living memory had a storm of such ferocity reached so far inland.

Yet the people remain surprisingly good humoured. Not a single cross word is spoken to the hoards of journalists quizzing them for stories - even by those who have lost everything.

In the city centre hundreds of college students have been told to do 40 hours of work towards the clean-up effort or forego their graduation - all seem glad to help. Many school children have given up holidays to work with brushes, shovels and any other tools they can find.

With spirit like this it seems certain that Honduras will bounce back from Mitch. But faced with the size of the task and the lack of money and machinery available, it will take some time and much help.

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