Drought Conditions Wreak Havoc On Latin America

Parts of Latin America are severely parched. The drought is fueling clashes, forcing rationing, decimating crops and affecting travel through the Panama Canal.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning. We have been reporting a lot on this program about the drought in the United States in places like California and Texas. But this country is not alone in facing a severe water shortage. In Latin America, drought is also wreaking havoc. Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro reading some of the recent headlines from South America.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: "The Worst Drought In The Last 30 Years Ignites 47,000 Forest Fires In Bolivia." "Government Begins Emergency Water Rationing In Venezuela Amid Drought." Here's another one - "Colombia Drought Triggers Clashes, Some Communities Say They Haven't Seen Any Rain For Two Years." And the final one - "Desperately Seeking Solutions To The Worst Drought In Decades In Brazil."

GREENE: We had a conversation with Lourdes about the drought in South America and also with NPR's Carrie Kahn, who has also been reporting across Central America where drought has raised the specter of famine in some places. First, to South America and its most populous city, Sao Paolo, Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've had a water shortage for many months now. There are some 20 million people who live here. One of the main reservoirs that supplies nine million people in the Sao Paolo area will go dry in the coming three months, experts say. And that's affecting restaurants, businesses and we are already seeing water rationing in some areas.

GREENE: And how is that rationing working? Is everyone having to sort of cut back or are certain neighborhoods getting water?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Certainly, we are seeing in some parts of the city formal water rationing. So some days you have water, some days you aren't. Other parts of the city, they don't know when the water will come on. They sometimes have to go without water for several days and then all of a sudden, the spigots will open. So it's been very chaotic and very difficult for many people.

GREENE: Carrie, let's move north to you, you're in Mexico City. And following this story from the vantage point there in Central America, is what Lourdes is describing similar to what you're seeing?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The drought here out here in Central America's devastating. Let's start in the north with Guatemala - the government this month declared a state of emergency in 16 of the 22 provinces. Crop losses, principally the mainstay of the Guatemalan diet which is corn and beans, in some regions are as high as 70 percent - 170,000 families lost almost all their crops. Moving on to El Salvador, the crop losses there are as high as 60 percent. In Nicaragua, thousands of cattle have died. And the price of, like, corns and beans - beans particularly have quadrupled just since May. And in Honduras, the government is distributing food and vitamin supplements. The drought has extended down to Panama too. And if it continues much longer, it will affect shipping through the Canal. This month, the Canal Authority said due to the lower levels in Panamanian lakes that feed the locks, they may have to restrict ship traffic. And most probably what that means is that the ships will have to lighten their loads so they don't require as much water to go to through the locks. But canal fees won't go down, so experts say we might see price hikes in consumer goods in the U.S. by late this year or early next year.

GREENE: So we could see the effects up here in this country. Well, Carrie Kahn, let me ask you this. I mean, these are poor countries we're talking about. You know, when you talk about the worst-case scenario with a drought, when agriculture is really hit hard, as you're describing, when food and crops are scarce, you can sometimes see, you know, real turmoil, people fighting over scarce resources, you know, fighting for the government to do more. Are we starting to see that?

KAHN: You know, this is an area where at least half the populations, and in some countries even more, live in poverty. And just this month, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network that's run by USAID, they sent out an alert that the four northern countries in Central America will experience rapid deterioration in food security by the first part of this year. They say they need high, high levels of humanitarian assistance, probably at the levels that we haven't seen since 1998, when Hurricane Mitch devastated the region here. And just to put a number on that, remember, when that happened, more than 100,000 refugees came to the U.S.

GREENE: Lourdes, you know, I'm thinking about the headlines talking about how awful this is. Does any of the coverage suggest why this is happening?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'm going to let you hear directly from the scientists on this issue because, as you can imagine, it's complicated. I've spoken to a few. Paulo Barbosa, he's a researcher with the European Commission on Drought, and he's written several reports on Latin America in particular. But when we get to the why it's happening, Barbosa, like many of the scientists I spoke to, was cautious.

PAULO BARBOSA: So there might be a relationship between climate change and the increase of the frequency and severity of these extreme events, including droughts. But, of course, sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between climate's variability in itself and climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What he's saying is that climate change is happening. We know it's happening. Climate change is impacting weather events. But they're now studying if these droughts are due to climate change itself or simply sort of cyclical weather patterns. What the scientists I spoke to said for sure is that governments are going to need to do much more to prepare for these events with better water management and techniques that will guard against instability in the region.

KAHN: If I could just add, in Central America, you know, which is one of the poorest regions in Latin America, the governments don't have a lot of options. In Nicaragua they're subsidizing food prices, especially beans. And in Honduras they're passing out aid. But without international help, there's really little they can do. And all four of the most vulnerable countries in Central America have begun appeals to the World Food Program and other international aid relief groups.

GREENE: Any rain in the forecast in either of your regions and any sense for when this might be coming to an end?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's nothing as predictable as the weather, they say. I mean, certainly we're getting into a rainy season, but this is a long-term problem, the scientists say and certainly the experts say here. And it's a problem that because many of the reservoirs have been drained so much because it's been going on for so long, it's not something that will be easily fixed with a good season.

GREENE: All right. We've been talking to my colleagues, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Sao Paulo and Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thanks to you both.

KAHN: You're welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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