Acute-on-chronic food insecurity in Guatemala

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David Flood
David Flood, MD, MSc, is a physician with the Guatemalan NGO Wuqu' Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance and resident in Medicine-Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and an MSc in international health policy from the London School of Economics.

 

Photo by Rob Tinworth

Photo by Rob Tinworth

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) released a report this week predicting a food security crisis in Central America in early 2015 due to a prolonged drought. FEWS NET was created by USAID in the 1980s and provides analysis and early warnings on issues pertaining to acute food insecurity.

On the ground in Guatemala, where I work with the non-governmental organization Wuqu’ Kawoq, our patients, community partners, and friends have been warning us about the rain shortfall for months. In the highland Guatemalan town of San Juan Comalapa, many indigenous subsistence farmers have told me that they expect poor crop yields after the area received almost no rainfall during the traditionally rainy months of June and July. In the Pacific piedmont district of San Antonio Suchitepéquez, a region that typically produces multiple growing cycles and surplus maize, we have also observed severe drought in our project communties.

This FEWS NET report supports our experience in the field.  It states that, since June, “rainfall in many areas in Central America is 50-75% below average.” It also predicts that the September maize and bean harvest will be down throughout Central America, including a 66.2% drop in black bean and 9% drop in maize production in Guatemala, on a year-to-year basis.

In addition to poor harvests of staple foods, these countries have also been dealing with the effects of la roya, the fungus also known as coffee rust, which has decimated coffee production and reducted income for day laborers over the last two years.

FEWS NET predicts that as harvests continue to fail in November and December, the situation will deteroriate to “crisis” levels by March 2015 in much of Central America, including “the eastern and western areas of Guatemala and El Salvador, the southwestern and southeastern areas of Honduras, and the central and northern areas of Nicaragua”:

[E]xtremely poor households across large areas of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador will experience a rapid deterioration in their food security in early 2015. Atypically high levels of humanitarian assistance, possibly the highest since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, will likely be required in order to avoid a food crisis.

FEWS NET uses the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale to classify the severity of food security. “Crisis” or IPC Phase 3 refers to the third of five levels and implies that urgent action should be taken to “protect livelihoods, reduce food consumption gaps, and reduce acute malnutrition.”

In Guatemala, this forthcoming crisis of food security should be thought of as an acute-on-chronic problem. Our organization’s recent research has highlighted that food security is already a paramount concern in Guatemalan highland indigenous communities where chronic malnutrition is nearly ubiquitous. And in our experience, the Maya are much more likely to practice subsistence agriculture than the non-Maya and, thus, are probably more acutely susceptible to drought conditions.

This episode is another reminder that nutrition programs do not exist in a local vacuum. Rather, such programs are greatly influenced by factors outside the control of nutrition programmers such as global trends in the price of food commodities, the export of non-traditional agricultural products, and climate-related factors such as drought and natural disasters.

Read the whole report: FEWS NET: Food security Crisis likely due to coffee rust and drought.