Local consumers were dismayed to discover on Aug. 14 that the severe drought that has ravaged crops through Central America, had driven up the price of corn per quintal (46 kg) by 40 quetzales (US$5) in the municipal market of Quetzaltenango, a predominantly indigenous department located in the Guatemalan highlands where corn is the main dietary staple.
Similar price increases, which particularly affect subsistence farmers living below the poverty line who are forced to purchase corn and beans in local markets when their crop yields are insufficient to feed their families, have also been reported in other Guatemalan departments such as Retalhuleu and San Marcos.
Drought has been a recurrent problem in Central America over the past decade and this year’s drought is set to worsen by the end of the year as a result of the El Niño phenomenon, a band of warm ocean water temperatures that periodically develops off the Pacific coast of South America, resulting in torrential rain in South America and drought in Central America.
According to the Guatemalan government’s latest estimates, at least 50 percent of the crops in the “dry Corridor”, a geographical area that includes the Eastern departments of Chiquimula, Jutiapa, Baja Verapaz, Retalhuleu, Santa Rosa, Zacapa, Quiché, Suchitepéquez, Jalapa, and Huehuetenango, could be lost due to the impact of drought, endangering the food security of up to 168,278 families and prompting the authorities to declare a state of emergency.
Guatemala’s National Association of Coffee Producers (ANACAFE) also said in early August that the impact of drought in two of the country’s coffee growing regions, Santa Rosa and Jutiapa, will cause output to fall next season by 3 percent or about 9,600 kg per bag, which could also affect seasonal laborers who travel to those coastal departments every year in search of employment.
And according to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) up to 2.8 million people in Guatemala, northern Honduras and western El Salvador are struggling to feed themselves.
“This is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and people are hungry. The situation of these people is usually critical and if they lose their crops, it becomes very serious”, said WFP spokesman for Latin America and the Caribbean, Alejandro López during a press conference held on August 29th.
In response to the drought, the Guatemalan government has said it will begin distributing 4,000 tons of food aid to more than 170,000 families affected using WFP food reserves.
However, López explained that more than 70,000 tons of food are needed every 90 days to feed one million people but the WFP only has 12,200 tons, which means it lacks the necessary resources to feed Central America’s drought victims.
“Atypically high levels of humanitarian assistance, possibly the highest since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, will likely be required in order to avoid a food crisis”, said a recent report by Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net).
In response to the current crisis, Guatemala’s Council for Food Security and Nutrition (CONASAN), a coordinating body that includes representatives from the ministries of Agriculture, Health, and the Environment, among others, as well as the vice president and civil society organizations, published in early August a report that identified the 208 municipalities worst affected by drought and estimated that the government would need at least 340 million quetzales $43.3 million) to deliver the necessary resources to avert the specter of widespread famine in these areas. However, so far it is unclear how the government intends to obtain these resources.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, where red bean prices rose by up to 129 percent between January and June 2014, according to the FEWS Net, run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), President Daniel Ortega recently allowed 40,000 tons of red beans and 73,500 tons of white corn to be imported to help lower prices.
In neighboring Honduras, the government is distributing rice, beans, flour and vitamin supplements to 76,000 families affected by drought.
No long term solutions in sight
However, the scale of the problem and its recurrent nature illustrates the inadequacy of the measures taken by successive administrations over the past decade in order to deal with this problem, including long-term strategies to reduce the impact of climate change and protect the food security of farming communities.
According to a study published by Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University’s Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment (IARNA), Guatemala has previously suffered two serious droughts: one in 2001, which endangered the food security of 1.4 million people and a second one in 2009, which had an even stronger impact as 2.5 million people faced hunger.
IARNA points out that although climate change is a global phenomenon and that there is not much that a small, developing country like Guatemala can do in order to significantly reduce its exposure to it, successive administrations have repeatedly failed to invest in the necessary technology and infrastructure to ensure the adequate management of water resources and prevent drought in the country’s eastern departments.
The study lists a number of measures that could be implemented in order to reduce the impact of drought in this region, including drip irrigation, more efficient farming techniques and the construction of reservoirs in order to ensure communities’ access to water resources in times of shortage.
Another major problem throughout the region is that most countries lack a specific legal framework to regulate the management of the country’s hydric resources, guarantee communities’ access to water and establish stiff penalties to prevent the pollution of rivers and lakes. —Latinamerica Press.