TS Agatha triggers famine alert; Heifer staff safe, but projects impacted

Reported by Cinthya Harris, communications and administration officer, Americas program

(LITTLE ROCK, Ark, June 2, 2010) – Tropical Storm Agatha opened the 2010 hurricane season early, slashing the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, killing nearly 200 people and displacing thousands in the three countries.

Heifer International country teams in Honduras and Guatemala are safe, and there are reports of some deaths and damage to Heifer projects and families. In Guatemala, some project sites benefitted from the rains, though in-country teams remain wary and alert as hurricane season looms.

High losses in the agricultural sector prompted the World Food Program to warn of widespread famine if actions are not taken immediately. Food-insecure families are at the greatest risk, but losses of livestock and crops, as well as damage to infrastructure and irrigation systems, have pushed food prices up, putting even more families at risk.

More than 50 percent of Guatemalans live in rural areas of the country. Of these, 83 percent make a living off of livestock and agricultural production. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working with the Guatemala Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) to rehabilitate agricultural production assets to aid poor rural populations affected by the storm.

Additionally, following an appeal by President Alvaro Colom, international aid from the United Nations and the European Union is beginning to arrive in the country to aid in the effort.

Hardest hit by Agatha was Guatemala, which is reporting more than 150 dead, according to the National Coordination for the Reduction of Disasters (CONRED). More than 128,000 people were impacted by the storm, which damaged more than 22,000 houses and left 100 people missing.

In Honduras, Agatha killed 18 people but impacted more than 13,000, according to Honduras’ Permanent Contingency Commission (COPECO). About 35 percent of unpaved roads in the country were damaged and there are numerous reports of damaged bridges and collapsed and impassable roads.

Agricultural and livestock losses were estimated to be more than $26 million, said Jacobo Regalado, minister of agriculture and livestock. Forty percent of the losses occurred in the southern part of the country, including 1,000 head of cattle lost, and 988 acres of shrimp and 12 square miles of sugar cane flooded. Additionally, corn and bean crops were destroyed by excess water.

Specific to Heifer, Guatemala Country Director Jonathan Guzmán reported that no Heifer’s project in the country suffered major damage from the storm. To the contrary, he said, some communities are benefitting from the added rainfall, but he acknowledges that the situation may worsen as the rainy season has just begun.

This year, climate experts are predicting formation of at least 23 tropical storms, eight of which could become hurricanes that affect countries in Central America.

Heifer Honduras reported that all projects in the country were impacted by the rains, including two deaths, the loss of one heifer, 16 damaged houses and damages to corn and grain crops in one project and six damaged and six destroyed homes, as well as damaged roads and a water supply system at another project.

The Americas team is in contact with Heifer country teams in Guatemala and Honduras. Updates will be provided as additional information becomes available.