Climate change is driving worsening hunger as farm families struggle to get a harvest
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rising numbers of children in Guatemala are going hungry as drought linked to climate change reduces food harvests, fueling child malnutrition rates in the Central American nation, the United Nations and charities said.
Guatemala, which has one of the world's high rates of child malnutrition, recorded more than 15,300 cases of acute malnutrition in children under 5 last year, up nearly 24% from 2018, according to government figures.
The number of children acutely malnourished was the highest since 2015, when a severe drought hit Central America.
Guatemala's farmers are reeling from a series of prolonged droughts in recent years and from a lengthy heat wave last year as climate change brings drier conditions and erratic rainfall, U.N. officials said.
Children living in poor highland farming communities and along the "Dry Corridor" - running through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua - are bearing the brunt, they said.
"There is an increase in cases of acute malnutrition that are related to climate change and the long periods of drought from June to October (last year)," said Maria Claudia Santizo, a nutrition specialist at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
Drought is also adding to the area of Guatemala suffering problems, she said.
"With climate change, the dry corridor has expanded," Santizo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Poor harvests of staple crops such as beans and maize mean rural families are forced to eat fewer meals a day, and have less food to sell, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
Families also are unable to store food to see them through the lean period before the next harvest, the U.N. agency said.
"We are seeing a high rate of child malnutrition that's rising for two reasons - high temperatures which affect the crops and resulting crop losses, and rains that are more erratic and unpredictable," said Amy English, a technical advisor at international aid agency Mercy Corps, which works in Guatemala.
She said worsening hunger in the region was a contributor to the caravans of migrants moving north toward Mexico and the United States.
To combat crop losses, rural development programs must include efforts to help farmers adapt to climate change, including planting more drought-resistant crops and better conserving water, she said.
Jose Aquino, a rural development manager in Guatemala for Mercy Corps, said more rivers in the region are running dry at least part of the year.
"2019 was one of the driest years in Guatemala. Rivers that didn't used to dry up are now doing so," Aquino said.
"All this basically affects the availability of food," he said.
STRUGGLING TO COPE
Marc-Andre Prost, a WFP regional nutrition advisor, said three in every five people in Guatemala already live in poverty and rural communities are struggling to cope with the additional burden of extreme weather.
According to WFP, about one million people in Guatemala - 15% of the population - "cannot meet their food needs on a daily basis", and hundreds and thousands rely on food aid.
"Climate change is not responsible for this situation but climate change and what we've seen in the last two years, these climate events, are definitely exacerbating a situation where people don't have the capacity to cope," Prost said.
Guatemala's small-scale farmers are heavily dependent on rainfall and most lack alternative sources of water for their crops.
"As soon as there is a problem with the rainfall, we see the immediate consequences on households" as they try to earn an income and feed themselves, Prost said.
Climate change means it is likely extreme weather - from hurricanes to torrential rains and prolonged droughts - will become more frequent in the future, he said.
Like previous leaders, the new president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, has pledged to make combating stubbornly high rates of child malnutrition a national priority.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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