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Drought, El Niño hit farmers in Central America

By Oxfam
Juana de Jesus Cruz cooks corn she will feed her family for a week at her home in San Felipe Arriba. Extremely dry weather, made worse recently by the El Niño phenomenon, destroyed the beans and corn she and her husband were growing for their family of 11 children. Photo by Tania Moreno/Oxfam America

Communities across region suffer from erratic rainfall and poor harvests, recently worsened by the El Niño phenomenon.

Elio Cruz, a corn farmer in El Salvador faced a grim situation at the end of last summer. He planted his cornfield at the end of May, but drought wiped out everything he sowed. By September he was in debt for the $700 dollars he borrowed for seeds, tools, and rent for the corn field. With his income falling to a dollar a day or less, Cruz sold his six hens and three small pigs for money to feed his 11 children and wife.

“Life is becoming increasingly desperate without food and water,” he says at his home in San Felipe Arriba, near Berlín.

Lack of water in this area has been a problem for 50 years. This year it is even worse as the El Niño phenomenon has created even drier conditions. Late in the summer there was no water in the community tanks. The artesian wells and springs dried up, along with any hope for a corn and bean harvest.

Cristina Alejo shows Oxfam staff the empty water tanks in her village, Loma Alta, in Usulutan, El Salvador. She says nearby wells have recently dried up. Photo by Tania Moreno/Oxfam America

Oxfam and two partner organizations provided food vouchers to 350 families (about 3,000 people, including the Cruz family) in the Berlin area. The vouchers were worth between $50 and $150, and were provided to farming families that had lost at least 70 percent of their harvest, lacked any food reserves, or had young children or pregnant mothers. The vouchers were redeemable for food and soap at local stories.

Later in the fall there were heavy rains in parts of El Salvador – heavy enough in a few places to destroy some crops that survived the drought.  Families in rural areas will certainly struggle to recover their ability to continue farming. By December Oxfam was estimating that 192,000 people across the country required immediate food assistance. Approximately 825,000 of them were severely affected by the drought conditions.

And dry conditions have persisted in other countries in Central America:  In Guatemala Oxfam estimates 1.3 million people are affected by food insecurity there; with staff reporting some areas going 30 to 40 days at a time without any rain. Honduras declared a state of emergency in July 2015, and may have as many as 1.4 million people affected, with a quarter of a million of them in need of immediate food assistance. Half a million people are affected in Nicaragua.

A field of maize, stunted and dried out, in Xinacati II, a community in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, in 2009. This area is part of the “dry corridor” in Central America, where dry conditions are even worse this year due to the El Niño phenomenon. Photo by James Rodriguez/Oxfam America.

Help for farmers                                        

Oxfam’s response in Central America includes providing cash to nearly 2,000 families participating in soil conservation projects in Guatemala. In some areas, Oxfam will be helping families improve their ability to grow fruit through production of fertilizers. Oxfam and partners in Honduras are distributing food vouchers to 1,760 families. Some of the same families have already received cash from Oxfam late last year. 

Across the region, Oxfam will help communities reduce their risk of malnutrition by improving access to clean water, sanitation, and promotion of good hygiene. This work involves rehabilitating wells, improving latrines, and ensuring families have soap and clean water. In El Salvador, Elio Cruz’s family encountered health problems brought on by lack of water: They were unable to wash regularly and drank unsafe water, and suffered from severe diarrhea and intestinal parasites, making it hard for them to get the most out of what little food they could find.

Wells in Loma Alta, El Salvador, are either dried up or contaminated, forcing families to buy water if they can. Photo by Tania Moreno/Oxfam America

Malnutrition also increases risk of diseases such as Zika virus, dengue and chikungunya, all serious threats in parts of Central America. 

Any humanitarian response in what is known as the Dry Corridor in Central America will need to address the chronic dry conditions in this area. The most vulnerable farmers do not own their own land, do not have any irrigation systems, lack affordable loan options, and have little extra money or assets upon which to fall back when times are difficult.

“It is increasingly important for us to implement integral and coordinated approaches to achieve long-term solutions to these extremely complex problems,” says Ovidio Calderón, representative of the Community Development Association in the village of Loma Alta, Berlín. “We cannot stop fighting for food and water.”

With reporting by Tania Moreno in El Salvador

Oxfam aims to assist more than 85,000 people in Central America who are struggling with the El Niño crisis, with programs to reduce malnutrition risks and to help farmers get back on their feet.

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