Guatemala: Nowhere to hide – hundreds of thousands live in the shade of three volcanoes world News
A huge and greedy rumble of steam and rocks erupts from the crater of the volcano flying above us.
It’s really terrifying to feel this power, so close.
I looked around wondering where I would hide if the volcano erupted suddenly. Then I realized – and it’s really clear – that there is nowhere to run and hide.
Here, perched on the side of Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, at the closest lookout point to the summit of the volcano, one feels very insignificant.
To my right, away from the belching crater, a wide lava field collapses towards the bottom of the valley, and at a distance, the towns and villages directly in its path.
Our guide, volcano park ranger Alexander Rodas, who joined us as we walked our way to the observation post, confirmed my worst doubts: if things go wrong, we will not survive.
“Gases, winds, rocks and lava have no chance of survival,” he said.
He added – “But it’s okay! It’s quiet” – as another boom shook through the non-volcanic core.
It took long negotiations to get here, and now I just wanted to get off the mountain.
Guatemala says three of its most active volcanoes are erupting at the same time.
This has happened many times before – but in 2018, last time, hundreds died when billions of tons of water, sand and rock flooded their communities. Hence the anxiety among the many experts residing here.
The country is used to this kind of thing. It has more than 30 active volcanoes, but the phenomenon of three simultaneously is never good.
For the past five days or so, we have traveled between the volcanoes of Pakaya and Fuego. Fuego means fire – and it doesn’t take time for you to see why.
It spews out steam like the others, but it also sends successive plumes of molten lava high into the sky on a disturbing regular basis.
They make an enormous amount of noise – a noise that wakes me up in my hotel room just miles away, and frightens me when I’m underneath it talking to the communities that live in its shadow.
But both of these volcanoes are showing disturbing trends.
At night, we saw Pakaya spewing fire and lava, and huge streams of molten lava flowing from a fissure hundreds of meters down one side of it.
My guide Alexander explained that “Pakaya has increased its activity in the past few days. In the afternoon and evening we see an eruption sometimes reaching 500 meters (1640 feet), which puts the population at risk.”
“The volcano is increasingly active, and we are all concerned.
“It is possible to observe and predict a volcano eruption two or three days in advance depending on the number of eruptions. If there are more than 80 to 100 eruptions per minute, this is a warning that a large eruption is imminent.
“At the moment, the speed of the volcano is 30 to 40 per minute … This is moderate to strong.”
Entire communities live in the shadows of these volcanoes – with more than 180,000 people around Vulcan de Fuego.
Most of the time, the volcanoes are clearly visible, but during our visit, as we burped away, the gray ash, steam and cloudy sky concealed Fuego from our eyes, but we could hear it the whole time.
The people who live here are really afraid – they don’t have a choice to move around.
Not only does Lendy Salan say she doesn’t have the money to go anywhere else, but she says they’d be trapped in lava anyway if the volcano erupted.
“On this side, there are two or three rivers, so when something like this happens it flows into the river, and when it is time to leave, we can’t because we are stuck here.”
Their only option would be to head to higher ground.
“If that happens, we cannot leave, we have to go up the hills, because the cemetery is high, and a lot of people go to the cemetery – it’s the only place.”
Just getting out of the volcano in a hurry would be a hypothetical impossibility.
The roads between the communities are mud and volcanic rocks. They are steep, curvy, and incredibly difficult to drive.
Our modern SUV struggled through four rivers and climbed almost vertically.
Nobody I spoke to had any confidence in the government’s emergency evacuation plans. In fact, they don’t think they really exist anyway.
Edwin Barrera told me, “It’s nice to look at it, but at the same time it’s terrifying … We have continued to be ignored by the government.”
“The government has not set foot here, they don’t care about us. This is a totally deserted village, they have completely abandoned us. I feel scared when I hear a rumble, but where can we go?”
The government has provided notices of voluntary eviction to local communities, but there is little evidence that shelters have been equipped for the arrival of people.
In past disasters, families who evicted their villages left the men behind work shifts to protect villages from looting.
This means that the main breadwinner is terribly vulnerable – and if they die, the family is in a worse position. It is a terrible mystery to all the people who live in the shadow of these volcanoes.
In essence, their predicament is no different from my primary concerns high in the volcano.
What to do if things really go wrong? In fact, for these people, there is no place to flee and no place to hide.