Ryan Alaniz, 2009-2010, Honduras attending the 2016 White House Water Summit
Like disasters, life is far from predictable. In 2009, during my Fulbright U.S. Student grant, I was living in a resettlement outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, populated by people who had been displaced by severe flooding from Hurricane Mitch (1998). Now, where I live in California, which faces the worst drought in 1,200 years, we are wrestling with too little water. My research on the social implications of drought builds on what I learned in the impoverished re-settlements of Honduras, and has led to recognition by the White House.
My invitation to submit a policy brief on drought, and a subsequent invitation to the White House Water Summit, came as a surprise. Hundreds of water/drought academics and organizers are conducting excellent research and implementing creative programs to address water scarcity concerns throughout the nation. Why would they choose me?
When I posed this question to my contact at the National Security Council, he expressed his admiration that I had hosted the Disaster by Drought Summit, co-sponsored by California Polytechnic State University, the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU), and MunichRe Foundation. For a week, UNU affiliated scholars from around the world came to California to discuss the drought with counterparts from the Western United States. Participants listened to lectures from engineers and architects, businesses and non-profit organizations, farm owners and laborers, and also visit a local vineyard to see the impact of drought. Not only were new collaborations formed, we also produced a policy brief for the White House and the California State legislature.
Drive north from the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, for about 35 minutes and soon you will descend into a beautiful, mountainous valley called the Valle de Amarateca. You will notice thousands of pine trees, green scrub brush and pockets of identical houses (post-Hurricane Mitch communities) scattered about the valley. Billows of smoke rise from the Café Indo coffee processing plant on the right and the Café Maya plant on the left. The smell is inviting on a calm day. Soon, you are in the lowest part of the valley where brown dirt roads wind their way up into the mountains well worn by foot, tire, and hoof. Take the last road on the left – the one before you head up the mountain on the other side of the valley. If you’re seated in the back of the car, remember to hold onto the seat in front of you to avoid hitting your head on the roof due to road dips and bumps. Climb around the cow pastures and honk while turning corners so that oncoming traffic can hear you approaching. Follow the sign up the hill to Divina Providencia. Workers cutting grass will stop and wave or nod, wondering who is entering their community. If they know you, they will shout with a raised hand, “Compa!” or “Tio!” endearing names reminding you of the friendships you maintain. Be careful of the skinny dogs and roaming cattle on the road. As you enter the community, you will notice aspects of the glory and sadness that are Honduras: people laughing alongside burning trash, kids playing barefoot with a flat soccer ball on a dirt field, abandoned cars alongside beautiful gardens and gentle smiles that turn into frowns when talking about politics. In this country, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, life is simpler and more complicated than in the U.S.; simpler because people consume less and are more apt to live in the present given an uncertain future, and more complicated because of the enormous hurdles Hondurans and their country face in developing economically.
Being a Fulbrighter has enabled me to study Divina Providencia and three other “new” communities built for victims of one of the worst disasters in history: Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1998. Although much has been written about natural disasters (mitigation, relief, recovery, reconstruction, etc.), academics and the press have written little regarding the long-term trajectory of these communities. My research addresses this research gap by asking why the following community measures – health, crime, civic participation and social capital – are so different in places that are similar in terms of infrastructure and demographics, located within ten kilometers of each other. I hope my findings will not only highlight strategies for future post-disaster reconstruction efforts but will also provide insight into how a community is created (or not) from scratch, the role of NGOs in supporting or stifling these efforts and perhaps offer lessons on how to create healthier U.S. neighborhoods.
Photo: Ryan Alaniz, 2009-2010, Honduras, with his son Santiago outside their home in Ciudad Divina Providencia heading out for a walk to the river.