CLEAN-UP EFFORTS after Hurricane Mitch in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa were being hampered by a 'lake' of heavily polluted water which has backed up in the city.
Hurricane Mitch saw winds of over 300km/h lash Central America early in November. 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 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 were dropped amid fears that the sudden rush of water would cause renewed flooding downstream. Engineers opted to remove material slowly from the top of the dam using army excavators, as most of the region's major construction companies had transferred plant and equipment outside the city to repair roads and bridges.
Speaking some three weeks after the flooding occurred, Ministry of Public Works, Transport and 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 feared that high concentrations of heavy metals from factories destroyed in the floods, plus bacteria from broken sewers and corpses would cause a major health hazard.
However, although draining the water slowly increases the risk of disease in Tegucigalpa, Reyes claimed it might 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.
Health problems in the city were made worse by the lack of clean drinking water. The main distribution pipe was cut during the floods and the United Nations estimated that only 22% of the population was receiving water. Rebuilding sewers, roads and homes is expected to cost $366M.