Chronic child malnutrition and persistent food insecurity require a more sustainable solution
INTERNATIONAL AID AGENCIES are providing nutritional, health and farming support to hungry families in Guatemala after President Álvaro Colom declared a national “state of calamity” in September in response to severe food shortages.
The rural poor are being hit hard by falling remittances and rising unemployment caused by the global economic crisis, persistent high food and fertiliser prices, and a lack of rain stemming from the El Niño weather phenomenon. Drought conditions have damaged corn and bean crops, which are staple foods, and this has compounded the impact of a poor harvest in late 2008 in the wake of flooding.
According to the Red Cross, some communities only have enough food to last until the next harvest in December, which is likely to be sparse. Those worst affected live in the seven provinces of the eastern “dry corridor”, where 54,000 families cannot access the food they need. The government estimates that a total of 410,000 families in 21 provinces (around 2.5 million people) are affected by the food crisis, and 25 children are reported to have died from severe malnutrition this year.
Even in better times, almost half of Guatemalan children below the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition – the highest rate in Latin America and the fourth highest in the world. AlertNet reported in October on UN research that put the cost of economic losses from child malnutrition in Guatemala at $3.1 billion a year in 2004, or 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). That compares with an average of up to three percent of GDP across 10 Latin American countries studied.
“There’s a clear relationship between child malnutrition, economic loss, productivity and competitiveness,” Alejandro Chicheri, WFP's regional information officer, told AlertNet. Describing the Guatemalan figure as “amazingly high,” he added that “only a fraction of that $3.1 billion” would be necessary to resolve the problem. The national and international response to this year’s food crisis includes food aid, distribution of seeds and fertilisers, technical help for farmers to rehabilitate their crops and livelihoods, measures to prevent the spread of dengue fever, and community education in health and nutrition. Meanwhile, the government plans to implement a longer-term strategy to reduce vulnerability to hunger and introduce a more sustainable system of production.
Aid agency Save the Children is already training families in agricultural techniques and setting up micro-irrigation systems for kitchen gardens, as well as providing chickens and goats. The programme aims to help parents give their children a more varied and plentiful diet. Farmer Miguel says the health of his son Alex has improved drastically thanks to his family’s participation in the project. Miguel is also teaching others in Quiché about the low-cost and environmentally-friendly agricultural practices he has learned. “My land makes more corn now, so I don't have to buy corn at the market anymore,” he says.
Megan Rowling and Anastasia Moloney (AlertNet)
Survey shows financial crisis is hurting children
This year’s survey on remittances in Guatemala conducted by the International Organisation for Migration and UNICEF highlights the negative impact of the financial crisis on children and adolescents.
- An estimated 1.6 million Guatemalans live abroad – 70.5 percent are men who send an average of $272 home each month. Remittances in 2009 are expected to total $3.84 billion, 11 percent lower than in 2008.
- Among 3,000 households interviewed, 8.7 percent of children between 7 and 17 can no longer attend school and 7.4 percent have been forced to find jobs to supplement the family income.
- 72 percent of households described their economic situation as between bad and fair. Many have been forced to cut down the number of meals per day and the amount of calories they consume.