Central American drought: Millions in need of humanitarian aid

Dry-season bean production in Nicaragua, which experienced drought before the El Niño weather event of 2015. (Credit: CIAT/Flickr)

Two consecutive years of drought have led to some 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – countries of Central America’s ‘Dry Corridor’ – with urgent action now essential to help build weather resilience and food security, United Nations leaders said last week.

The El Niño weather event that began in 2015 brought the region’s already dry climate into a devastating drought. This El Niño is over, but it was one of the worst on record. Among many in need of aid, 1.6 million are now suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity.

Experts say the solution is not just to provide humanitarian relief, but to address the roots of the region’s poverty and food insecurity.

“We need to change the traditional response strategy and tackle the structural causes of poverty and food insecurity in Central America’s Dry Corridor and not settle for simply mounting a humanitarian response every time an emergency situation occurs,” said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, at a meeting of U.N. agencies and the World Food Program (WFP) in Rome last week.

Graziano da Silva stressed the need to focus on resilience and adaptation to climate change, particularly for small-scale farmers.

“These [farmers]are people who were already food insecure, and now suffer with even more food insecurity,” explained Margarita Astrálaga, director of the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD)’s environment and climate change division, in an interview with Humanosphere.

The lack of rain in the region has caused the loss of between 50 percent and 75 percent of staple grains for smallholders in Guatemala, and in Honduras 44 municipalities have already received emergency food supplies.

El Niño appears to be over, but the weather phenomenon’s cyclical counterpart, La Niña, will strike soon, ushering above-normal rainfall, which could benefit this year’s harvests, but could also threaten crops throughout the region if coupled with a more active Atlantic hurricane season.

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In preparation of continued climate fluctuations, the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have teamed up with the U.N. and other organizations to help farmers develop more weather-resistant strategies. Throughout the Dry Corridor, the FAO and IFAD are helping provide equipment such as early-warning weather systems and working to improve the irrigation system.

The U.N. agencies are also helping farmers identify crops, such as corn, that can withstand more drought, flooding or salinity. Instead of planting coffee in some regions, farmers are encouraged to harvest more weather-resilient cocoa, and in Guatemala, farmers are advised to grow plants that require less water, such as watermelons.

Astrálaga emphasized the importance of continuing to address the needs of rural farmers, whose livelihoods also help fuel the rest of Central American societies.

“It’s clear that climate change has arrived,” she said. “And smallholders … are the ones feeding the urban areas. So if they don’t see any opportunities in the rural areas, obviously they will migrate, and they will abandon the land.”

“We have to make sure we don’t just concentrate our efforts on the urban areas of Central America,” she added. “That would be a huge mistake for Latin America.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com