Some of the Pacific Ocean is warmer than usual – a seemingly innocuous fact, but it actually explains the devastating drought afflicting one of the world’s poorest countries. Because of El Niño, the name for the sporadic increase in temperature in this band of ocean water near the Pacific coast of South America, some regions in Nicaragua have seen little rain during the past several months and the May harvest has failed, resulting in a food crisis. The citizenry is now calling on President Daniel Ortega to implement policies to compensate for rising food prices.
As El Niño develops from June to August and the waters of the equatorial Pacific warm, the Nicaraguan climate becomes warm and dry. This year, the country’s western and central areas have been extremely dry. According to the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies, rainfall in some of these areas has been as much as 88 percent lower than average. One farmer described the amount of rain he has seen over the past few months as “not enough to really even wet the earth.”
As a result, both the bean and maize crops failed in May. Approximately eight out of every ten rural inhabitants depend on these crops for their livelihoods, according to New Agriculturist. Many are asking how Nicaragua, where roughly 1.2 million people were undernourished in 2012, will find a way to feed the second poorest population in Latin America, especially with food prices on the rise.
Dairy and beef producers have warned the government that their production could fall by 50 percent if the drought continues into September. Livestock owners have adjusted by purchasing expensive feed and medicine that they hope will save as many cattle as possible. They pass their increased costs of production on to consumers. And despite these measures, cattle are still dying in droves. More than one thousand cattle have starved to death, according to one agricultural union.
Nicaraguans facing this food crisis are demanding President Ortega act to mitigate it. Thus far, his administration has met with farmers to discuss their options, has expanded a government program that provides meals to thousands of families and has ordered the importation of millions of kilograms of beans and white maize, which will hopefully keep food prices from skyrocketing until the September harvest. In addition, millions of schoolchildren receive free meals consisting of “rice, beans, fortified cereals, wheat flour and vegetable oil” from the U.N. World Food Programme.
However, if the September harvest also fails, the country could face a famine. Farmers used their profits from last year to buy seed for May’s harvest, but now they must borrow money to buy the seed for September’s. If Nicaragua’s drought continues past September, many farmers fear they will have nothing left.
In June, the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) reported that there would be a 90 percent chance of El Niño occurring this summer. However, the Nicaraguan government could do little with that information because the ECMWF lacks the means to predict the phenomenon’s intensity.
It is also worth noting that El Niño’s effects have varied from country to country. Some farmers in other countries, such as mango farmers in Brazil, expect to benefit from the rains that El Niño brings to those regions. This one weather phenomenon brings prosperity to some and destitution to others.
– Ryan Yanke