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Jan 29, 2016

In El Salvador, a struggle to survive El Niño

Elizabeth Stevens, Oxfam

Some days I woke up and saw the sun and didn’t want the day to come.  -- farmer in rural El Salvador

To raise a family in poverty in Central America you have to be tough, because the setbacks come hard and fast.  Natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes pose deadly risks, and violence and insecurity take a heavy toll on poor communities. But since 2012, successive years of drought—combined with the spread of a fungus that devastated coffee plantations—brought the rural economy to its knees, and there have been times when even the most resilient families have faced despair.

The crisis intensified in 2015, when the El Niño weather pattern deepened into one of the strongest in decades. Many farmers lost their crops of corn and beans, which left them without food, cash, or the means to invest in the next growing season.  In some cases, they no longer have an affordable source of water.

“Now even if the weather were right,” says José Martínez from the Salvadoran community of Cerna, “we wouldn’t be able to plant a cornfield because we don’t have the resources.”

Hungry days and sleepless nights

For parents, the struggle to put food on the table has been acutely painful.

Rosa Yaneth Chávez, a mother of six who lives near the Salvadoran town of Berlin, describes the hardship of 2015. “We lost everything,” she says. “Sometimes we ate two meals, sometimes one. We went to bed without eating. You can’t even sleep, thinking about what you are going to give your children. My children got sick from malnutrition.” 

America López Henríquez, a widowed mother of four who lives in nearby San Juan Loma Alta is sure her children are struggling with malnutrition, as well. She lifts her son’s shirt to reveal brown spots across his belly.  “He’s had headaches and fever and a rash,” she says.

“The crisis has driven mothers to send very young children to school because there is nothing to eat at home,” says Yesenia Guerrero, a health promoter for Oxfam partner Provida.  There, she says, “they could get a glass of milk and some rice and beans. But the schools ran out of food long before the end of the year.”

By September, the rains had arrived, but they were unusually heavy, and in some areas they badly damaged the second harvest of the year.

Henríquez’s resources were exhausted.  “We put in a few beans,” she says, “but there was too much rain, and now they are rotting.”

As the harvest failed, a lifeline

But for a time this year, Chávez and Henríquez and many mothers like them have had a respite from their struggles: Oxfam partner Provida launched an emergency voucher program to help 500 acutely vulnerable families in El Salvador purchase food and hygiene essentials. For three consecutive months, they had a chance to buy what they needed at a small local supermarket.

Henríquez received vouchers for $78 each month—an amount based on the size of her family—and with them she bought beans, corn, oil, sugar, milk, bread, soap, and toothpaste.  

Chávez’s supplies included cereal. “The children have to walk one and half hours to get to school. Before this program, they had to do this without anything in their stomachs.” The vouchers, she says, were a huge help. “We are immensely grateful. All the families are.”

Searching for solutions

Funds for the vouchers have run out, but the disappointing second harvest means that for many, the crisis continues.  Karen Ramírez, who oversaw the program for Provida, is discussing the future with people from the hard-hit communities. The immediate needs are urgent, but so is the longer-term need to help communities build resilience in the face of climate disruptions.

“Our corn and beans are too delicate. Can someone help us find alternatives?” asks Guerrero at a community meeting with Ramírez.

Without water, there can be no crops or grass, and without grass there can be no livestock, says Gregorio Flores, vice president of a local development association. “Maybe we should focus on building a reservoir, or on catching rainwater for drip irrigation systems.”

Ramírez listens to all the ideas and thinks about which she could find help them find funding and support for.

One thing is clear: the communities know best what they are up against, and in the search for solutions, their voices and leadership are critical. But to be effective, they need to work together and learn how to maximize their influence. Before she says farewell on her last visit of the day, Ramírez reminds community members that their power lies in collective action. 

“This is not the time to act as individuals,” she says.  “This is the time to organize.”

Oxfam is aiming to reach more than 85,000 people in Central America who are dealing with the crisis caused by El Nino and is calling on the international community to intensify their support of the affected countries.

 

 

Photo credit: James Rodríguez / Oxfam America

 

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