By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, May 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Around 2.8 million people in three Central American countries need food aid after two consecutive years of severe drought decimated crops and exacerbated hunger among the poor, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
Prolonged dry spells since mid-2014, linked to the El Niño weather phenomenon, have battered subsistence farmers in Central America's "dry corridor" running through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Poor rainfall has left parched, cracked soil, fields of withered maize and bean crops, and empty water wells in these areas.
Some 3.5 million people are struggling to feed themselves in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and of that number 2.8 million rely on food aid to survive, the FAO said.
"We have one of the worst drought in decades," said Anna Ricoy, FAO's regional disaster risk reduction specialist.
"It's a recurrent drought that year after year is slowly eroding the livelihoods of small farmers. It's a silent disaster," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Because of the drought, in mid-2015 Honduras declared in its dry corridor a state of emergency that is still in place.
Poor farmers and their families living across Central America's dry corridor have been forced to cut meals.
"People are and have been selling their assets to survive, selling land and seeds, reducing the number of meals a day and reducing their amount of protein intake," said Gianni Morelli, disaster response advisor for Central America at the U.N. humanitarian agency (OCHA).
"Right now the situation is very serious, and it's fragile."
The latest El Nino, which resulted in sea temperatures rising to the highest levels in 19 years and shifted weather patterns around the world, has ended, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said this week.
In recent weeks parts of Central America have seen erratic rainfall marking the onset of the rainy season, which started a month late.
Despite the rain, families in drought-hit areas will reel from the effects of poor harvests and loss of livestock for months to come.
"The current situation is likely to continue up to August when the first harvest of the year takes place," Morelli said. "Much depends on what will happen with the rainfall and the results of the first harvest."
A key challenge facing Central America's dry corridor is ensuring small farmers are better prepared to cope with long dry spells by improving rainwater harvesting, creating more efficient irrigation systems and planting drought-resistant crops.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said in April it is providing food aid - such as rice and beans, and cash for people to buy food at local markets - to 1.6 million people affected by drought in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.
The drought has ravaged Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, with half of all crops lost due to poor harvests last year, according to the WFP.
A third consecutive year of drought in Haiti has "resulted in a drastic deterioration of the food security situation", driving people deeper into poverty and hunger, WFP said in a report this week.
The WFP estimates 1.5 million Haitians are severely food insecure, double the figure of six months ago.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Alisa Tang. 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 http://news.trust.org)