Storm Could Worsen Guatemalan Food Crisis

Food shortages in Guatemala could reach critical levels due to the destruction caused by last week's tropical storm, officials say.

Tropical Storm Agatha, the first named storm of the season, ripped through Guatemala over Memorial Day weekend, leaving over 150 people dead and displacing some 400,000. The storm also hit Honduras and El Salvador, where some 30 people were reported dead.

Severe flooding, mudslides, and giant sinkholes near Guatemala City destroyed homes and buildings as well as thousands of crops of maize, sugar cane, coffee and bananas.

But even before Agatha hit, Guatemalans were already struggling with feeding their own families.

Poverty in Guatemala has given the country the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, with small children being among the most affected. The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) feeds some 350,000 Guatemalans each year.

"We are facing a very difficult situation. Without doubt the food crisis is going to get worse and we can expect to see more cases of malnutrition," Rubelci Alvarado, programme manager with Save the Children told Reuters.

Food shortages in the country were exacerbated in recent years by severe droughts, high food prices, and a drop in donations from the international community.

Furthermore, Agatha hit the country during a time period between planting and harvesting known as the "lean season," when food supplies are at their lowest.

"The lean months are always especially risky," WFP spokesman Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri told Reuters. "The last harvest in Guatemala was not ideal and during the past months many families have already used up all their food stocks."

Additionally, many residents in Guatemala live in areas such as hillsides or riverbanks, which are deemed "high risk" to the effects of disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

José Escribá of the Guatemalan Geological Society says that land-use regulations must be put in place to mitigate the risks and effects of natural disasters.

"There are no serious policies to determine where the population should be situated. Everyone thinks that they can live anywhere they like, but these tragedies prove just the opposite," Escribá told IPS.

Meanwhile, support from the international community has begun to reach affected Guatemalans.

Millions of dollars of aid from some 18 countries, including a $3.7 million donation from the European Commission, has been pledged towards relief efforts, according to the Guatemalan government.

Several aid agencies, including the ACT Alliance, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Service, and Save the Children are currently on the ground assisting victims.

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