What was once thought to be a short-lived dry spell during the dog days of summer has turned into a threatening, regionwide drought.
In Honduras, farmers have been reduced to scavengers, foraging for fallen fruit to take to market after watching their fields of beans and corn bake beneath the clear sky’s unforgiving sun.
Guatemala’s government has declared a “state of public calamity” in the midst of a famine that has left 460 people dead this year (NT Sep. 18).
Costa Rica’s Central Valley-dwellers, who usually dread the relentless October rainfall as much as Canadians detest January’s biting chill, now wonder if they will have enough water to make it through next summer. In the plains of the northwesternprovinceofGuanacaste, farmers are turning their hopes to small irrigation systems in one last attempt to salvage part of this year’s harvest.
The cause of this year’s drought is the presence of El Niño in theCaribbean Sea.
The phenomenon has forced dry weather across Central America and left almost all of Costa Rica with less-than-average rainfall. El Niño’s arrival is nothing unusual. But the ferocity with which it struck the isthmus this year is shocking.
“This is an El Niño unlike any we have seen before,” said Ricardo Sancho, executive president of the Costa Rican Water Institute (AyA). “It has been very intense and very extensive, and it has put us all in a very unusual position.”
Officials have reported that this year’s dry spell is the worst the region has experienced in 70 years.
San José and theCentral Valleyhave received 20 percent less rainfall than average since the beginning of the year. In Guanacaste, farmers have seen less than half the normal rainfall since June, according to the National Meteorological Institute (IMN).
On Wednesday, AyA warned that Costa Rica could face water shortages in the near future if the nation’s citizens don’t begin to conserve the resource. During a press conference on Thursday, Sancho said that the country must reduce its water consumption by 20 percent over the next three months to avoid an emergency drinking water situation next year.
The average Costa Rican, who uses an average of 200 liters of water per day, must lower daily use by 40 liters, according to Sancho.
AyA projects that every area of the country, except the CaribbeanprovinceofLimón, will see surface water reductions between 20 and 40 percent through next summer. “This has given us a very important alert,” Sancho said. “If there is no change in water consumption on the part of Costa Rican families, we are going to have serious problems with water shortages.”
Sancho insisted that individuals not wash their cars with anything other than a piece of cloth. He urged citizens to steer clear of watering their gardens and to spend a maximum of three minutes in the shower for the next three months.
In the case of a water emergency, AyA will set up a crisis center and send cistern trucks to affected neighborhoods. The institute will also prepare bags of water to pass out to parched communities.
These plans are already in the works and should be ready in 2010 if needed. In Guanacaste, where most of the country’s rice and beans are grown, more than 1,500 hectares of rice have been ruined, and losses have tallied up to more than $2 million, according to the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG).
In addition to the rice that has already been lost, the grain planted on an additional 3,500 hectares is at high risk of dying. The 6,000 hectares of rice that were planted in the central Pacific region will also see reductions in yields this year. MAG predicts that 25 percent of the national crop could be lost.
ThroughoutCentral America, officials estimate that more than 700,000 people have lost at least half of their crops, and food experts at the United Nations have warned of food shortages next year.
The National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Services (SENARA) in Costa Rica is feeding water through two canals from the Lake Arenal reservoir, a two billion cubic meter reserve at the foot of the Arenal Volcano in the Northern Zone, to water a portion of the Guanacaste fields. But the irrigation system can only cover about 35,000 hectares of crops in an area that is home to more than 200,000 hectares of farmland.
William Montero, director of projects for SENARA, said that the institute is planning to add an additional 20 kilometers of irrigation canals in the zone, but construction isn’t expected to be complete until 2012. He said that SENARA is also planning to build an 80-million-cubic-meter irrigation reservoir for the zone west of theTempisqueRiverin Guanacaste.
The same Arenal reservoir that SENARA uses for irrigation is used by the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) for hydroelectric energy production. This year, hydroelectric energy production has fallen 18 percent, the daily La Nacion reported.
Each year, hydro energy feeds more than 80 percent of the country’s electricity needs. When (ICE) can’t generate enough electricity from its hydroelectric plants to meet demand, it switches on a series of thermal plants, which run on diesel fuel, that are costlier and release more contaminants.
So far this year, ICE has spent more than $5 million more on thermal production than in 2008, La Nacion reported.
The IMN is predicting that the rainy season will end in the second half of October, earlier than usual, and continue to bring less than average rainfall to most of the country.
“We are worried,” Montero said. “But people will have just have to be smarter with water this year. Water crops at night, fix leaks in your water system. We will continue to plan for better and more efficient systems for the future, but in times like these citizens need to take responsibility and be smart as well.”