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Drought aggravates food insecurity in Honduras and Guatemala
In 2009, the worst drought in 30 years affected some 2.5 million people in Guatemala —roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population. In neighbouring Honduras, the prolonged drought caused by the El Niño cyclical climatic phenomenon resulted in 7,000 families suffering severe food shortages. Paradoxically, these countries also experienced flooding and excessive rains in other regions within the same period of time.
This drought aggravated the already fragile food security situation in both countries with losses in both food production and livestock. Its effects will be felt well into 2010, when the first harvests of August and September are expected to be lower than normal.
In Honduras and Guatemala, respectively 69 and 75 per cent of the rural population live under the poverty line. In 2006, the United Nations (UN) already estimated that 12 per cent of the population in Honduras and 16 per cent in Guatemala were undernourished, while in the latter, half of the children under five years old suffered from chronic malnutrition, the highest rate in Latin America.
Rising prices of basic food commodities over the past couple of years have further undermined the coping mechanisms of the most vulnerable people, while diseases such as diarrhea and respiratory infections were on the rise. Making matters worse, the Honduran people also paid the price of the political and social unrest that was provoked by the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.
In September 2009, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom appealed to the international community to provide US$100 million to counter the food crisis in the southern dry corridor of his country. The crisis that had begun in May, which is a seasonal food shortage period, worsened during the first and second planting seasons when crops were damaged by heavy rains in the South and drought in the West and East. The Ministry of Agriculture reported that from January to September 2009, some 74 per cent of corn crops and 98 per cent of bean crops had been affected. The departments of Chiquimula, Quiche, Jutiapa, Zacapa, Jalapa, El Progreso and Baja Verapaz in the dry corridor, in central-eastern Guatemala, were the most affected. It was estimated that the food crisis would endure until the first harvest of the year, that is to say August to September.
The Humanitarian Country Team for Guatemala, which was formed by the UN, the government agency for disaster relief and NGOs, organized a food security and nutritional survey in October 2009 led in nine departments of the dry corridor. Its findings suggested that 11 per cent of the area’s children under five years of age and 23 per cent of women between 10 and 19 years old were severely or moderately undernourished.
In the case of Honduras, the rural sector had gone through a gradual process of impoverishment in recent years. In 2007, 68.9 per cent of the rural population lived in conditions of poverty and 61.7 per cent in extreme poverty. Throughout 2009, the situation worsened. The impact of the global economic crisis, the national political crisis and the prolonged drought had serious consequences on livelihoods in rural areas, especially in the southern dry corridor, which encompasses the departments of Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, Valle, Franciso Morazán, Choluteca and El Paraíso. On Dec. 29, the Honduran government also declared state of emergency in the capital Tegucigalpa due to severe water shortages caused by El Niño.
National and international stakeholders were quick to respond to the emergencies in Guatemala and Honduras and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was able to build upon existing mechanisms to effectively coordinate the relief operations.
Bilateral aid to Guatemala was organized swiftly: Mexico donated 42 metric tons of food including corn, beans, rice and oil, while Ecuador donated 10 and Argentina gave 14. The Netherlands, Norway and Spain supported the effort through the Guatemalan Red Cross.
Notably, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies allocated roughly S$29,000 from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the Guatemalan Red Cross (GRC) and sent an emergency public health officer and a disaster management officer to the country. Its Pan American Disaster Response Unit also remained in permanent contact with the GRC to coordinate activities to tackle the food crisis. Other NGOs such as Action Aid and Catholic Relief Services allocated funds and food to alleviate the dire situation of the affected populations.
OCHA, for its part, deployed a disaster response advisor to Guatemala to assist in coordinating the emergency response of the international community. The UN made US$5 million available through its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to assist the most vulnerable households affected by crop failures.
In response to food insecurity in southeastern Honduras, the UN allocated another CERF fund of US$1.5 million to national humanitarian agencies at the beginning of January 2010. Many other UN agencies are collaborating on the ground to provide emergency food assistance (WFP; US$825,000), emergency therapeutic feeding for severely malnourished children as well as water, sanitation and hygiene programs (UNICEF; US$142,000), and emergency nutritional surveillance and dissemination of critical health information to families affected by the drought (PAHO/WHO; US$139,000). Furthermore, the Food and Agricultural Organization will reactivate livelihoods for 3,200 small farmers affected by the drought in the southern region.
The national Institute of Agricultural Marketing will distribute at least 2,200 metric tons of beans and 3,000 of maize in the departments of El Paraíso, Francisco Morazán, Yoro and Choluteca, where roughly 90 per cent of the crops have been affected by El Niño.
What is needed now is a sustained relief operation during the coming months as well as a structural approach to address the root causes of the chronic food insecurity in the area. Underlying causes that need to be tackled include economic factors such as low income and limited access to land and credit, as well as socio-cultural habits such as inadequate and unvaried food intake and poor hygiene practices among children under five.
Areas affected by the drought
Christian Smets is the Liaison Officer at the the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. For more information, visit www.redhum.org or contact OCHA at email@example.com.