Drought imperiling crops, food security of families
Late summer and fall in El Salvador is harvest time, when farmers dry corn on hot asphalt roads and families gather to shuck and cut corn and make batches of tamales.
But once again El Salvador is facing a drought that threatens corn and bean farmers and the food security of families. A special report published July 10 by the Ministry of the Environment (MARN) shows that most of eastern El Salvador, including the Lower Lempa where our partners are, is experiencing severe drought (16 or more days without rain).
It’s normal for there to be a short dry period at the end of June, but in recent years that week-long dry window has grown longer. Our partners say that farmers in the Lower Lempa haven’t seen rain in 32 days and are disheartened by the forecast (as of Wednesday, July 18).
Widespread drought in 2014 and 2015 that caused massive losses across the so-called Dry Corridor of Central America lasted from 24 to 45 days in some places, killing an estimated 60% of the corn crop and prompting $100 million in losses in El Salvador alone.
MARN predicts limited rain through July 23, and attributes the drought to warm, El Niño-like ocean surface temperatures that discourage cloud formation and rainfall.
Changing climate patterns and unpredictable rainfall mean that farming is becoming more and more of a gamble.
Subsistence farmers, who grow food to feed their families and generate extra income, are especially vulnerable to this uncertainty. They typically can’t afford to install irrigation systems or put aside savings in the event of a bad harvest; they rely on seasonal rains to water their crops. No rain means no corn, and no corn means less income to cover other basic living expenses, from healthcare to education.
Resilience has limits
Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It describes how we adapt or pivot in the face of challenges. It’s an important trait that families, communities, and ecosystems all share, and one that EcoViva and our partners work to develop.
But resilience has its limits. Resilience is built over time, with stability and investment and good practices. Repeated losses and lack of opportunities chip away at a family’s ability to endure tough times in the future.
When crops fail or when farming isn’t enough, families look for alternatives to meet their basic needs. People from the Lower Lempa often take on seasonal wage labor or migrate to cities to survive. Current alternatives don’t provide families with reliable or long-term solutions for economic stability though. Backbreaking work in sugarcane or coffee harvesting might bring in $5.00 a day. Many people depend on remittances from relatives abroad – one in five Salvadoran families receive remittances – yet this income is jeopardized by harsher immigration policies in the U.S.
When families struggle to put food on the table, migrating to countries like the United States becomes the best, or only, option for many people in El Salvador.
Climate chaos contributes to migration
This is apparent in the numbers on migration to the United States. Whereas emigration from Mexico to the U.S. has decreased in the last decade, more people have left El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to come the United States in the same period. Violence, political upheaval, and poor economic conditions have all contributed to this trend.
But another, less obvious factor in this migration pattern is the impact of climate change on family food security.
A U.N. interagency report from 2017 draws a clear link between climate variability, food insecurity, and migration. In a key paragraph from “Food Security and Emigration: Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras” researchers state:
The Dry Corridor is generally characterized by high unemployment, limited and seasonal labor demands and low and irregularly paid wages. More than half of the households interviewed reported spending more than two-thirds of their income on food, which reflects a high level of economic vulnerability to food insecurity… Outside the Dry Corridor, employment opportunities in coffee production have also been reduced due to the coffee rust crisis. Adverse climatic conditions in the Dry Corridor affect food security by curbing agricultural productivity in commercial and subsistence farming as well as agricultural work opportunities. The El Niño drought conditions that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the USA. [emphasis in the original]
As more people have come seeking brighter futures, the debate over immigration has raged. The current administration has adopted increasingly oppressive policies and continues to hold migrant children and families hostage in the name of law and order.
Families are leaving difficult situations at home only to find themselves unwelcome and persecuted when they seek help. In the words of journalist and author Lauren Markham, “a warming world creates desperate people.” If we needed yet another reason to tackle climate change, here it is.
Migration can mean greater economic security for an individual family in the short-term, but it negatively impacts communities’ ability to develop greater food security and protect the environment over the long run.
Supporting real resilience requires deep and sustained investment in community-led conservation. This remains the best strategy to combat climate change. People should not be forced to leave their families and homes to feed themselves. That’s why EcoViva is committed to supporting our partners’ efforts for stronger communities and healthy ecosystems in Central America. They understand that we need to tackle climate change now.