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Climate-Driven Poverty in Central America

Climate-Driven Poverty in Central America 
Hurricane Bonnie is the latest of many natural disasters to hit the coasts of Central America. Along with it came heavy rains and flooding that led to widespread damage and deaths in Nicaragua and El Salvador in July 2022. However, this is not an unfamiliar situation. In 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota led to $2 billion worth of damage in Honduras while leaving millions of people in Guatemala and Nicaragua facing food insecurity and internal displacement. In 2021, Hurricane Grace caused landslides and fatalities in Mexico alongside millions of dollars in damage. More concerning is the fact that this pattern has only become more frequent. In the past 20 years, climate-related disasters cost Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) countries a combined “equivalent of 1.7% of a year’s GDP.” By 2030, extreme weather patterns could thrust as many as 5.8 million people into conditions of extreme impoverishment in the LAC region. As such, climate-driven poverty in Central America is a significant concern.

Millions of people in Central America already live in what is known as the “Dry Corridor,” an area that faces alternating bouts of drought and extreme weather events such as hurricanes. These circumstances leave the largely rural population susceptible to climate-driven poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

Agricultural Impact and Food Security

According to the World Bank, in 2019, the agricultural sector accounted for 14% of total employment in the LAC region. However, around 70% of adults enduring extreme poverty in the LAC region work in the agricultural industry, a vulnerable population that faces disproportionate impacts from extreme weather events.

Job reliance on agriculture also varies by country. For instance, close to 40% of Honduras’ population engages in employment in agriculture, says the Global Agriculture & Food Security Program. Severe weather conditions have had a significant effect on agriculture in terms of employment and food output.

Hurricanes Iota and Eta ruined crops from Central America’s second growing season, affecting both small and large-scale farm operations. In the north of Honduras, the hurricanes caused a large spike in unemployment from the losses sustained in the area’s banana plantations. Coffee production, which makes up a large part of Central American exports and sustains low-income households, also saw damage to crops and irrigation systems from the heavy rains.

Beyond employment, agricultural impacts from these weather events also affect food production. The 2020 hurricanes caused an increase in food prices due to crop damage and raised costs of transportation.

The World Meteorological Organization estimates that as many as 7.7 million individuals in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua faced “high levels of food insecurity in 2021” because of the hurricanes and the exacerbating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Infrastructural Damage

July 2022’s Hurricane Bonnie left thousands of people in Nicaragua without power and water while roads in El Salvador flooded or collapsed.

Two years ago, Hurricane Eta and Iota destroyed government buildings, hospitals and thousands of homes in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. In total, ReliefWeb reports that Eta and Iota caused damages equating to $1.86 billion in Honduras, $742 million in Nicaragua and $775 million in Guatemala. Rural areas faced the harshest impacts as floods, heavy rains and landslides hit homes, streets and community centers. The hurricanes also caused water contamination after damaging the sewage systems, threatening the clean water supply.

Migration and Displacement

Both in 2020 and 2022, many families suffered major losses after the destruction of their homes by the hurricanes,  pushing them into extreme poverty. Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 displaced 1.5 million people in Central America, as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated.

Alongside food insecurity, poverty and violence, extreme weather events are a major factor in migration in Central America, driving thousands to the United States every year. According to the Brookings Institution, migration from countries like Guatemala to the United States connects to rural impoverishment and “agricultural stress linked to climate change.” Internally, migration from rural areas to urban centers across Central America is also becoming more common due to employment instability in agriculture.

Globally, the 2022 World Migration Report states that extreme weather events and disasters lead to the displacement of more individuals than conflict and violence, and the number will only grow without prompt intervention.

Policy Implications

The World Food Programme and U.N. Environment Programme-backed initiatives are encouraging climate resilience policies to eliminate climate-driven poverty in Central America. For example, the WFP introduced climate risk management practices, including insurance initiatives meant to protect people living in regions susceptible to extreme weather events. The WFP also introduced “forecast-based finance” techniques in countries such as the Dominican Republic, which will provide aid to 10,000 people in the event of the country anticipating a climate disaster such as floods. As of 2021, the WFP estimates that its “climate risk management solutions” assisted around 441,000 people in the LAC region.

CityAdapt, an organization working with the U.N. Environment Programme and funded by the Global Environment Facility, implements “nature-based solutions” in cities and peri-urban regions in Mexico and El Salvador. It uses natural ecosystems to fight the effects of extreme weather changes, promoting “green and blue infrastructure such as urban parks, green roofs and facades, tree planting, river conservation,” and more, according to its website. CityAdapt also launched an online course in 2020 for 40 cities within 14 Latin American countries to educate people on nature-based solutions to address extreme weather conditions.

While the end goal is to prevent the occurrence of extreme weather events, these innovative and resilient approaches have the power to reduce the impact of climate-driven poverty in Central America and other vulnerable regions.

Ramona Mukherji
Photo: Flickr