By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly one million people in Guatemala are struggling to feed themselves as poor rainfall has led to drought and shrunken harvests, worsening hunger among the poor, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.
Linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon, this year's drought has hit subsistence farmers living in Central America's "dry corridor" that runs through parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, hard.
"In Guatemala, 170,000 families, approximately 900,000 people, have no food reserves left. This is the third consecutive year they have been hit by drought," Diego Recalde, head of FAO in Guatemala, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This is a slow emergency that's not visible but we can already notice chronic child malnutrition is increasing," he said in a telephone interview from the capital Guatemala City.
Families in mostly poor, indigenous communities in rural areas are now eating only one or two meals a day, Recalde said.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) warned the extended dry spell, which is expected to last until March 2016, will lead to a drastically reduced harvest as drought destroys bean and maize crops, the country's staple foods.
"Some families could lose between 50 to 100 percent of their next maize harvest due later this month," Mario Touchette, WFP's Guatemala country director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
FEWER JOBS, LESS FOOD
One of the poorest countries in Central America, Guatemala already struggles to feed its population.
Around half of Guatemala's 15 million people live in poverty and the country has the world's fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition, affecting mostly children under five, WFP says.
Besides facing problems caused by drought, tens of thousands of families in Guatemala cannot afford to buy food because coffee producers are hiring fewer seasonal workers due an epidemic of roya, a fungus that eats away at the leaves of coffee plants, across Central America.
"Small and subsistence farmers rely on getting other work to supplement their incomes," said Ada Gaytan, disaster preparation coordinator at charity Action Against Hunger in Guatemala.
"But today there are fewer shifts and coffee pickers are getting paid less - $3 to $4 a day - half of what they got paid last year."
It means many families are forced to rely on government and U.N. food handouts.
The Guatemalan government has said it will begin distributing 4,000 metric tonnes of mostly maize, fortified flour and beans, to 121,000 drought-hit families from Aug. 17, using donations from Brazil.
Drought, a recurring problem in Central America's dry corridor, is exacerbated by extreme and erratic weather brought by climate change, aid agencies say.
A key challenge is to improve farmers' access to water by finding better ways of using and harvesting rainwater and more efficient irrigation systems for small farmers.
"Over the years, a lack of investment in water infrastructure and irrigation systems, along with land tenure issues - 44 percent of farmers rent their lands - exacerbates the problems caused by droughts," said WFP's Touchette.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Katie Nguyen (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org))
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