WASHINGTON — Hurricane Eta has threatened food security in Central America after the Category 4 storm caused widespread flooding during a key time in the agricultural cycle.
The storm’s heavy and sustained rainfall caused rivers to surge, leading to flooding and landslides across the region. An exact death count is not yet available, but it is estimated to be over 100 people. Some of the countries hardest hit include Honduras, where an estimated 1.8 million people are affected; Guatemala with 311,000 affected; and Nicaragua with 130,000 affected. The region was already one of the world’s worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic fallout of which has further contributed to food insecurity.
Alice Shackelford, U.N. resident coordinator in Honduras, said that the country's already high poverty rate combined with cases of COVID-19 and dengue fever means few are able to deal with an additional shock to their food supply.
“You’re talking about one vulnerability on top of another, and one emergency on top of another,” Shackelford said. “It’s a multiplying effect.”
Shackelford said the impacts of the storm in Honduras are likely to be even worse than Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that nearly 40,000 people in Honduras are currently in shelters, with some 745 communities across 155 municipalities reporting damage.
“The issue is that the families invested what little they had — because they lost a lot of things with COVID … — and now they need to find funds to be able to [plant] more.”— Alice Shackelford, Honduras resident coordinator, U.N.
NGOs are working to provide COVID-19 protective equipment, soap, clean water, and antibacterial gel, as well as basic hygiene supplies to those who are displaced. Social distancing and preventative measures are being encouraged in shelters.
Once people can return to their homes and land, clean-up efforts could take months, and standing water poses additional threats as it can foster disease.
Fall is typically the rainy season in Central America, when many farmers plant their crops. In Nicaragua, there are three planting cycles per year, with the last having just taken place. Hurricane season does not usually extend into November, so many farmers were not prepared for such a strong storm, said Felix Balladares, director of programs and quality at Save the Children in Nicaragua.
The region needs a new development model to recover from COVID-19 and correct long-standing inequality and economic growth issues.
Balladares said it is too early to know how widespread losses are, but that a large portion of the bean crop, a staple food, has likely been destroyed. Save the Children is working with local authorities in Nicaragua to assess food security needs, particularly of children, and avoid providing duplicate services.
Previously, NGOs were responding to food insecurity caused by drought in the region.
“Now we have the opposite … We anticipate that there will be more food insecurity,” Balladares said. “The third [planting cycle,] this was the moment to do it. So they will lose it, and they will have to wait for the next harvest, which is more or less May of the next year.”
The dry season begins in December and extends through March, and small-scale farmers without access to irrigation systems are unable to plant during this time.
In Guatemala, days of heavy rain doused areas where the soil had already been saturated, exacerbating flooding and landslide risk. Mercy Corps has been able to respond to some areas of the country where the organization works, although access in other places remains impossible due to water levels.
Corn, bean, coffee, banana, and oil palm are among the crops destroyed, said José Aquino, a rural development program manager at Mercy Corps in Guatemala. It could also affect the cardamom crop, which is a major export.
“This will impact people’s livelihoods, along with coffee, because it is harvest time,” Aquino said. “The impact in the end will be double, because first it affects basic grains we already have harvested, like corn and beans, and it also affects the new planting done in October and November.”
OCHA estimates a severe impact on agricultural, livestock, and other rural livelihoods in Guatemala after the storm, which will make already existing food insecurity even worse. If rains continue, the bean crop may suffer “irreparable harm,” OCHA said in its situational update.
People who are currently staying in shelters will have to evaluate their homes to see if they can safely return, Aquino said. Some people in Guatemala will be unable to return to their land because it has become uninhabitable with recurring landslides.
Shackelford said the U.N. is also concerned about what people will find once they return to their homes in Honduras. It will take time for the land to completely dry out as waters recede, and because of the high poverty rate, people don’t have the means to plant again this fall if their crop was destroyed.
“The issue is that the families invested what little they had — because they lost a lot of things with COVID, they couldn't save, they lost the income — and now they need to find funds to be able to [plant] more. That is going to be a huge challenge,” Shackelford said. “It’s not a good mix.”
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