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Chronicle of a drought foretold

Central America has been back in the headlines, and once again the news is not good.

El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala—already hit hard by natural disasters and armed conflict over the past few decades—have now endured what may be the harshest drought in recent history. Before Hurricane Michelle brought torrential rains and flooding in early November, a summer-long drought had crippled the region’s subsistence farmers, producing hunger and undernourishment throughout the poorest areas in each country.

The food shortage is expected to worsen further as a result of recent floods in northern Honduras that devasted the crops of thousands of small farmers.

To compound matters, a global coffee glut has forced prices of this crucial Central American commodity to plummet, making the situation in the countryside even more dire.

Approximately 1.4 million farmers have lost between 80 and 100 percent of the corn, bean, and sorghum crops that comprise their staple foods. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has called on governments and international organizations to send food aid to Central America, because available resources are inadequate to address the crisis, which is particularly acute among children and pregnant women.

The late arrival of rains in June and July ruined the region’s August–September harvest. Forecasts indicate that the second harvest, which should begin to be planted now, may also be threatened, creating the prospect of a long-term crisis. Stark reports are emerging from the region. The indigenous Chortí people in Guatemala have lost 90 percent of their crops and are surviving on wild grasses; the Garífuna people of Honduras have resorted to eating animal feed to avoid starvation; many families are said to be eating every other day. Children are arriving at health centers in advanced stages of malnutrition. And thousands of unemployed coffee plantation workers are organizing marches to bring attention to their plight.

Considering the cumulative effects of massive hurricanes, the El Niño weather phenomenon, earthquakes, volcanoes, and now drought, it is tempting to conclude that Central America is simply the victim of uncontrollable natural forces. But in fact, that is only part of the story.

Human intervention. To judge from studies and predictions about the sad reality in Central America, human beings share a significant measure of responsibility for this disastrous situation. Natural events take an extraordinary toll on the region partly because people have altered the landscape in damaging ways. Deforestation diminishes the absorptive capacity of the land and leads to flash floods that destroy houses and cultivated fields. Such risks are compounded by land-use practices that allow people to live on steep slopes or river basins that should never be occupied by homes. In addition, the region does not have policies in place to address endemic problems in the agriculture sector, which continues to be largely excluded from the global economy.

“The social and economic impact of this drought on people could have been substantially lessened if the region had adequate means of prevention, including protection and efficient allocation of water resources, soil conservation, management of hydrometeorological information, inventory management and storage of grains and foodstuffs, and the use of contingent financial mechanisms to deal with lean times, as they do in other countries when droughts strike,” says Ricardo Quiroga, senior economist of the IDB’s Environment and Natural Resources Division 2. “The process of desertification caused by soil deterioration and depletion of water sources in the region is continuous and severe. This is largely attributable to unsustainable production practices. The IDB is assisting governments in the region in the implementation of programs designed to improve the use of soil, water, and forests, within a context of sustainable rural development.”

The familiar path of disaster. The current drought has followed a corridor of agroecological vulnerability that coincides with the region’s most depressed, arid, and poor areas, devastating the subsistence crops of people who lack irrigation infrastructure and water storage facilities. The drought has simply aggravated the critical underlying food situation in the region, which is experiencing alarming rates of malnutrition.

Honduras. Before the crisis, a WFP report noted that Honduras was at great risk. “The scarcity of food is a structural problem that is particularly acute in rural areas where families lack the wherewithal to obtain daily sustenance.” Along with Haiti, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, Honduras has a very high malnutrition rate and little capacity to respond to adversities. Predictions are that the situation will remain critical in the medium and long term, particularly for mothers and children. Increased infant and perinatal mortality is possible, along with temporary and permanent delays in psychomotor development, greater vulnerability to disease, and eventually decreased academic performance and lower productivity in adulthood, among other effects.

Nicaragua. According to the WFP, the 80 percent of Nicaraguans who are experiencing extreme poverty live in rural areas where natural disasters such as floods and droughts are recurring phenomena. Some degree of malnutrition is present in 32 percent of children under the age of five. IDB experts note that Nicaragua is extremely vulnerable in terms of food security.

El Salvador. The WFP’s analysis of the situation in El Salvador is not encouraging, either. In addition to overpopulation and food insecurity, there is the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which crippled the country’s agricultural sector and its capacity to produce basic staples. In 1998, the malnutrition index stood at 29.6 percent in the countryside, while chronic childhood malnutrition at the national level was 30 percent.

Guatemala. Guatemala is also facing shortfalls in terms of nutrition, according to the WFP. Approximately 65 percent of the population exhibits some degree of malnutrition, the third leading cause of death in the country.

“Clearly the underlying problem of hunger has grown worse because of the drought,” says Francisco Roque Castro, director of the WFP for Latin America and the Caribbean. He adds, “The basic problem is extreme poverty, and that problem remains unresolved.” According to estimates of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), economic growth in the region, initially forecast at 2.5 percent, will now be less than 1 percent in 2001.

Long-term solutions. It is tragic to think that some of the loss of life and property caused by disasters in the region, including Hurricane Mitch and last summer’s drought, could have been avoided through preventive measures and better management and use of natural resources.

“Hurricane Mitch and this drought are opening the eyes of many public officials in the affected countries, because the consequences of these disasters are more severe than ever before,” says Ricardo Quiroga. “However, the basic solutions lie in the medium and long term. The drought in Central America is not so much a problem of a lack of water, but of distribution of water between areas of great abundance and others of scarcity. Basic management tools are needed to allow for rational resource allocation. The Bank’s water resources strategy very clearly acknowledges that integrated resource management at the watershed level will make it possible to avoid disastrous impacts from floods, while improving management of the various uses of water.”

Still, the region’s countries must pass and implement modern laws on natural resource use and management, according to Quiroga. Another major problem to be resolved is regulation of land ownership and the lack of real land, water, and financial markets that produce true development opportunities for rural inhabitants. What has been put forward so far in terms of legislation and regulations is insufficient. In the best cases, a number of laws are still in the proposal stage, or are awaiting parliamentary debate. “The good thing is that there are new proposals, public awareness is heightened, and there are many good initiatives that tackle the root problems of rural poverty,” says Quiroga.

Information management is another area in which the region is lacking. Knowledge about the causes and effects of this crisis is extremely limited. There is no systematic monitoring of climatic and hydrometeorological conditions, or of the various interrelationships among processes that determine the impact of a drought. It is difficult to make decisions and anticipate disasters accurately. “To some extent, the problem is one of a lack of resources,” says Quiroga, “Hydrometeorological information is still not fully appreciated, and there are no mechanisms for recovering the associated costs.” In general, hydrological and meteorological services are very weak. An innovative approach must be found to ensure the sustainability of producing and disseminating this information at the regional level.

IDB initiatives. The Bank is working with the region’s countries to implement a vision of rural development that mounts a frontal assault on the determining factors of poverty, which is the root cause of social vulnerability. To tackle the problems that lead to desertification and natural resource degradation, mainly of soil, water, and forests, the IDB is financing natural resource management programs in priority watersheds in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. As Quiroga notes, “In any event, the problems are similar: eroded soil becomes less productive, producers’ capacity to generate income decreases, social conflict increases owing to the scarcity of water or access to it, and vulnerability to natural disasters grows.”

In general, the programs seek to raise the income levels and quality of life of small-scale hillside farmers who grow mainly basic grains, through practices that improve soil productivity, make water use more efficient, and promote crop diversification. At the same time, the goal in these watersheds is to reduce physical vulnerability and provide environmental services that benefit the whole population.

The involvement of communities, grassroots organizations, and local governments in the process of developing and implementing activities is an important part of these initiatives. Decentralized decision making and participatory land-use planning are aspects of local ownership of these projects, and the results so far are encouraging. Quiroga says that the Bank’s operations have already yielded excellent results in the Chixoy watershed in Guatemala, the El Cajón watershed in Honduras, and the Upper Lempa River Basin in El Salvador. In Nicaragua, a second operation under the Socioenvironmental and Forestry Development Program (POSAF) has just been approved, based on the excellent results of the first phase. Producers take action on their own farms not only because it is good for the environment, but because the rational use of soil, water, and forest resources leads to higher income and a better quality of life.

In late 2000, the Sixth Regional Meeting on the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was held in San Salvador to prepare scientific and technical reports, with support from the IDB and the Danish Technical Cooperation Trust Fund. Those reports confirm that broad areas of the region are threatened by desertification and the impact of drought, mainly because of human intervention. Now that this has been recognized, each country in the region has committed to preparing a national action plan to combat desertification and drought. “The IDB is in an excellent position to help with the eventual implementation of those plans,” says Quiroga.

The tragedies that might have been prevented have served as a warning that critical long-term decisions must be made. The process of rebuilding in the areas affected by Hurricane Mitch includes integrated actions to regulate and manage river basins. If those actions are carried out successfully, the impact of many of these natural disasters could be controlled. In the best-case scenario, human intervention will help cushion the blow of nature’s fury rather than intensify its disastrous effects.

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