Latin American and Caribbean countries count El Niño losses and prepare for worse

Central American and Caribbean countries are estimated to have harvested15 to 20 percent less cereals and beans in 1997, as compared with1996, because of weather anomalies caused by El Niño, according to a Special Report issued by the FAO Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS). Losses in several countries have been much higher. In Nicaragua, for instance, about 80 percent of expected maize production was lost in most drought-affected areas. Some 9 500 families from 27 municipalities on the Pacific Coast need assistance in terms of food and rehabilitation of agricultural activities.

Latin American and Caribbean countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of El Niño, which starts as a warming of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean off the Peruvian coast. This affects global weather patterns, resulting in more erratic and extreme conditions that threaten many countries in the region with both floods and drought at different places and stages in the cycle.

Second season crops in Central American and Caribbean countries, which are now being harvested, were hit by heavy rains in September, typical of the hurricane season, and then by abnormally dry weather - typical of El Niño. "Prospects of recovery from previously incurred losses are almost nil for most countries," according to the report. "In addition, a serious risk exists for the planting of the 1998 first season cereal crops, beginning in March, should dry weather extend to March/April."

Many countries in the subregion are taking steps to prepare for worsening conditions. In Guatemala, according to the report, measures include financing of small irrigation systems, improvements to rural roads, control of strategic grain reserves and improvement of weather information.

In South America, El Niño's effect is expected to be felt most strongly in the early months of 1998. Bolivia, which suffered torrential rains in September, now faces forecasts of floods in the east and drought in the high plateaux of the country. The government is taking protective measures. Brazil too has suffered flooding and the report warns that "more rains are forecast in the months ahead, which could present a serious threat to the developing maize crop"; while in the North-East, by contrast, below-normal rains are reported and drier weather is forecast in the months ahead. Drought conditions across the region have also damaged pasture, thereby cutting milk production and sparking off forest fires in several countries, particularly in Colombia. Serious flooding and high tides are reported in parts of Ecuador with damage to crops as well as to housing and infrastructure.

15 December 1997

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