Back-to-back hurricanes in Central America left at least 1.5 million children at risk of severe diseases due to water contamination

22 January 2021
Regina Díaz, mother of 6 children living in a shelter. “We did not expect the hurricane to be so devastating. We lost everything." Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean visits Baracoa Community, in Honduras.

PANAMA CITY, 22 January 2021 – More than two months after the onset of powerful hurricanes Eta and Iota, over 1.5 million children are still exposed to life-threatening diseases in Central America as many water systems including wells and latrines have been contaminated, said today UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Jean Gough, when wrapping up a 10 day-field visit to affected communities in Honduras and Guatemala.

“It hurts me that many houses and schools are still buried under sand or covered by mud in communities affected by the hurricanes,” said Jean Gough. “I saw tears in the eyes of mothers as their investment in their children’s well-being has been lost. Two months after strong hurricanes hit Central America, the humanitarian needs of families with children are still widespread and will last for a long time. Many wells have been contaminated, and water installations have been damaged and destroyed. Without access to clean water, the risk of diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases remains high. If  urgent action is not taken, more children are likely to become malnourished, drop out of school and fall into poverty.”

In Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, over 1,230 schools have been partially damaged or destroyed. Roofs were washed away, toilets and walls were wrecked, and school furniture and materials were ruined. Without immediate actions, many children are at risk of missing out on face-to-face schooling for yet another school year due to the impacts of the hurricanes.

The areas hit by the hurricanes are also those affected by some of the highest levels of violence and poverty in the world even before the pandemic. The two strong hurricanes and the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic pushed more families with children into poverty.

“I am concerned that many parents lost their jobs because of the pandemic and then  lost their belongings, houses and crops because of the hurricanes. These children and their families are now left with very little food, very little safe water and very little money to survive. Many of them are likely to migrate up north in search for a better life in the coming weeks and months. It’s urgent to improve their living conditions for them to stay in their communities affected by hurricanes Iota and Eta, including a return to schools,” stressed Jean Gough.

Together with governments and other partners, UNICEF teams on the ground are providing humanitarian assistance in response to the most urgent needs of children and families in the hurricane-hit affected countries across Central America, including Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua:

  • In Honduras, 5,000 people have received water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in shelters, nearly 12,000 children and caregivers have been engaged in violence prevention activities, safe spaces in shelters benefited 2,232 children, 3,713 families have been reached with in-kind transfers, and health workers have been trained on nutritional screening. UNICEF is also supporting the restoration of WASH infrastructure in schools, after their heavy use as shelters, in preparation for the reopening of schools.
  • In Guatemala, nutrition brigades provided services to over 23,800 children, and identified and treated 249 children with acute malnutrition. Hygiene kits were delivered to 1,258 families, benefiting 2,375 children, and there is ongoing work being carried out for the rehabilitation of local water systems to benefit 489 families. In shelters and communities, 2,125 children received psychosocial support. The acquisition of temporary classrooms is ongoing, nevertheless, given the number of destroyed schools, additional support is needed to address the needs for materials and equipment.
  • In Nicaragua, WASH supplies have benefited 25,000 people in affected communities, materials have been distributed to support protection activities for 3,600 children and adolescents, and 12 child-friendly spaces are being established in affected areas. Staff from ten organizations and local governments have been trained on C4D and Accountability for Affected Populations (AAP). UNICEF is shipping into the country ten tents for temporary learning spaces and school bags to reach 20,000 children in some of the most remote affected communities
  • In Belize, 8,850 families have been reached with prevention messages for waterborne diseases and healthy behaviours, and 150 families received hygiene/nutrition kits. Early childhood development (ECD) play kits are being procured locally to be distributed to 390 families in communities affected by the hurricanes. An additional 975 boys and girls, from ages 0-8 will benefit from play and recreational materials to support learning opportunities.

“In spite of the pandemic, in spite of these hurricanes, I saw women and men engaged in cleaning wells and rehabilitating schools. Even children were helping to install hand-washing stations in schools so they can continue to learn. This gives me a strong sense of hope. In these resilient and strong communities, small investments can really make a big difference in children’s lives. Additional funds are urgently needed to repair more schools, restore water and hygiene systems and provide students with educational kits and supplies before the beginning of the school year in a few weeks,” said Jean Gough.

In December, UNICEF appealed for US$42.6 million to provide humanitarian assistance to 647,000 people affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota, including 327,000 children. Over two months after the hurricanes devastated Central America, UNICEF has only received less than 30 per cent of the funding required to help families in need.

In support of Central American governments, UNICEF is urgently calling on the international community to bolster its financial commitment to create minimal conditions for hurricane-affected families with children to stay in their communities and prevent major setbacks in access to education, nutrition, protection, water and sanitation.

Ahead of the start of a new school year in the coming weeks, UNICEF also urges Central American governments to reopen schools and stands ready to support their efforts. The next few weeks and months will be critical for the restoration of education, including sanitation and water systems in schools, as well as implementing health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


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UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
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