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Drought Central Am*

Drought Causing Severe Food Shortages in Central America

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By Mary Jordan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, July 29, 2001; Page A26

MEXICO CITY, July 28 -- More than 600,000 people are short of food in Central America because of a prolonged drought this year, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which says this is the worst natural disaster to hit the region since Hurricane Mitch three years ago.

Honduras has been hit hardest, but Nicaragua and El Salvador also have been severely affected. This week, the government of Honduras declared a national food emergency in much of the country, saying thousands of small farmers have lost their crops for lack of rain. After a tour of the Honduran countryside this week, officials of the aid organization said that as many as 185,000 people there were at risk of malnutrition.

"The problem is now beginning to be hunger; in some places, people are eating only one meal a day," said Rosa Antolin, WFP's deputy regional director for Latin America, reached today by telephone in Managua, Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, the government has reported losing more than half the staple food crop of maize this year. This loss, on top of a poor crop last year, has forced many families to cut back on meals, and in some cases abandon parched fields to move to urban areas. "Some farmers in the dry parts lost everything," Antolin said.

At the same time that much of Nicaragua is suffering from lack of rain, an area along the Mosquito Coast on the Caribbean Sea has been inundated with rain and floods in recent weeks. There, as many as 8,000 people -- mostly rural indigenous people in scattered villages -- suffered near-total crop loss, according to a WFP official who toured the area.

"These people, already living in abject poverty, are currently eating a fruit . . . [called ojon] which is normally fed to pigs and which provokes diarrhea and vomiting when consumed by humans," according to the WFP report issued this week.

In El Salvador, already devastated by two earthquakes this year, the lack of rain is affecting the eastern and northwestern parts, and the government is considering declaring a state of emergency in those areas. Several international aid groups, including some backed by the U.S. government, said they are discussing relief strategies for the region.

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