New Report: The Health Consequences of El Niño in Central America

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Rural, poor farmers in Central America are often hit hardest by El Niño events.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

A new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls attention to the devastating effects of El Niño in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. El Niño refers to the “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific (NOAA, 2016).”

El Niño Wreaks Havoc on Central America

The presence of El Niño has caused prolonged drought in Central America that is expected to last through at least March of 2016. Crop failure, especially in the “dry corridors” of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, has already affected 4.2 million people in the sub-region.

As with many climate-related events, the poorest households are most affected. Food insecurity and malnutrition are the biggest challenges facing these countries and are expected to last through the next harvest in August 2016. Guatemala and Honduras have gone as far as to declare a state of emergency. The governments of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are providing support to farmers by distributing seeds and water pumps.

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Source: World Health Organization (WHO), 2016

Most farmers in the region, particularly subsistence or small-scale campesino (rural farmer) operations, rely predominantly on natural rainfall for their crops, and these recent weather patterns, caused by El Niño and increasing climate volatility, have exacerbated food insecurity and overall instability in the rural areas of Central America. We are not even halfway through the summer season here, with full bore temperatures (and corresponding dryness) reaching its peak in the months of March and April.

Eco-Friendly Agriculture in a Changing Climate

One of the key takeaways from the campesinos that I work with and visited on my last regional tour in October is that increased variability creates significant uncertainty around the arrival of the first rains in May. Many farmers are unsure about when, what, and how much they should plant for the season. These conversations played over and over again as I traveled from El Salvador to Guatemala, and then from Honduras back to Nicaragua.

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A farmer in Honduras takes us on a tour of his small tree nursery, where he grows a variety of species.

According to Gerardo Santos, a field coordinator for Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible (CEASO), “These fluctuations and changing climate dynamics are wreaking havoc in the most vulnerable areas and increasingly encroaching upon the majority of the country. Without the stability and predictability of the rains, campesinos are really in a difficult spot; they are in a struggle for survival.” 

To assist these farmers, Trees, Water & People supports programs in sustainable agriculture, like those of our newest partner, CEASO in Honduras. A shifting paradigm in agriculture emphasizes climate mitigation and adaptation strategies like better soil management, conservation, rainwater harvesting, enhanced water storage capacity, agroforestry, crop diversification, and better and more resistant local seeds.

We believe that a more diverse, holistic approach to farming will protect campesino families in the long run, ensuring rural communities have access to food and other natural resources in a rapidly changing climate.

To read the full WHO report please click here.

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treeswaterpeople

Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

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