FEATURE STORY

Record drought in Central America: four countries, 40 days without rain, two million facing hunger

September 10, 2014


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Cows in yollow fields in Nicaragua

CYNTHIA FLORES MORA (WORLD BANK)

More than 500,000 families in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have nothing to eat due to a record drought.

On a hot June day, Gerónimo Carrasco makes one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He thought to himself, “the rains won’t come,” so he sold his two cows. “I don’t have water or food to give them. I have to exchange them for food for my family,” said the farmer, who owns a small plot in San Nicolás, Nicaragua.

In Central America the lack of rain is a first-person experience. Like Carrasco, thousands of smallholder farmers have been forced to sell their basic commodities to survive one of the longest droughts in nearly half a century, which has driven 2 million people to the brink of starvation.

Yellow fields, dry leaves and cracked earth. In this desolate landscape, only a miracle could make the beans grow, which is a staple for millions of Central Americans.

More than half a million families are suffering from what experts call “food insecurity,” – in other words, the lack of food – due to agricultural and livestock losses. According to estimates by Central American governments, Oxfam and other international aid agencies, 236,000 families in Guatemala, 120,000 in Honduras, 100,000 in Nicaragua and 96,000 in El Salvador are already facing this situation.

Gerónimo’s story is similar to that of many other families who live in the Dry Corridor, which extends across the four countries. The severe drought resulted from a long period without rain: there were 45 days without precipitation between July and August, the first rainy months of the year.

According to experts, this year’s drought may be associated with El Niño phenomenon. The lack of rain is occurring during the most critical period for corn and bean production, causing significant losses of these crops.

The scenario for the coming months is discouraging. Meteorologists say relief will be delayed since irregular rains are forecast until October.

Guatemala, in the eye of the drought

This devastating situation has had the worst impact on Guatemala, where the drought occurred following two years of poor harvests (2012-2013) and declining employment for day workers resulting from the coffee rust crisis.

The drought has affected 70 percent of the country’s landmass and the poorest 54 percent of the population, a segment that accounts for half of all chronic malnutrition among children under age five, according to SESAN (Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat).

Diego Arias, WB agricultural economist, says that more than 1 million households in Central America, most located in the Dry Corridor – which extends in over 30 percent of this region – are subsistence farmers. “It is in those households where the drought results in malnutrition and fewer opportunities to escape poverty.”

According to the expert, governments should implement a comprehensive risk management strategy for agriculture. This entails preventive activities such as initiatives for increased access to more resistant seeds, improved agricultural practices and investment in irrigation systems. Additionally, governments must better organize disaster response to provide food and income to the most affected households.

Finally, but no less important, catastrophic risk must be spread out to ensure sufficient resources in years of extreme losses. “Agricultural insurance (a type of insurance against weather phenomena) is needed to protect the most vulnerable in the event of severe droughts,” says Arias. “These mechanisms already exist in countries such as Peru, Mexico and Brazil.”


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Dy Corridor in Honduras            

Angels Maso/ World Bank


Alternative for the isthmus

Despite the state of emergency, a variety of efforts have been implemented for several years to counteract the impact of climate change on the lives of Central Americans.

In Honduras, the Dry Corridor Alliance, a government proposal that brings together aid agencies, including the World Bank, seeks to train local farmers to diversify their crops and to engage in subsistence activities other than agriculture.

On the otherr hand, Guatemala has launched projects to help more than 1,000 families in the Dry Corridor improve their agricultural productivity through the use of agroforestry and rainwater irrigation systems. This initiative also provides support in the lower-cost production of environmentally-friendly basic grains.

Finally, El Salvador has implemented a project to assist more than 2,000 smallholder farmers in the eastern part of the country to adapt their practices in an effort to mitigate the effects of the drought and food insecurity caused by the volatility of food prices and agricultural inputs (tools, seeds, fertilizers) and energy (fuel and electricity).