Drought and Famine in El Salvador: How Climate Change is Leading to Mass Migration


By Cristina Guevara
Contributing Writer
24 January 2019

On September 7, 2018, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said that due to the severe drought in Central America, approximately 2.8 million people are struggling to feed themselves. The most affected groups include small-scale corn and bean farmers in the region’s “Dry Corridor”, which runs through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Eighty percent of the region in the Dry Corridor is rural, and its people rely solely on agriculture as the base of their economy.

The effects of climate change in the region have been identified as drivers behind the current wave of migration into the United States. As immigration issues along the U.S.-Mexico border continue to intensify, research has found that people are migrating not only due to economic reasons, but also due to ecological ones. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has made an urgent call for the improvement of climate resilience in the region, as inhabitants struggle to secure their livelihoods due to the loss of nearly 281,000 hectares of crops. In addition to the intensification of drought Central America, being  an isthmus, has large bodies of water on two sides, which makes the region more vulnerable to rising sea levels, storms, and hurricanes.

In El Salvador, a “red alert” was declared in July 2018, after 33 days of drought and high temperatures of around 41 degrees Celsius. Reportedly, more than 130 million pounds of corn were lost due to the record-breaking heat and drought. Because of intense deforestation activities and rapid soil degradation, El Salvador is particularly vulnerable to climate change. In addition, El Salvador is the most water-stressed nation in Central America, due to its small land area relative to its population size as well as decades of failure to adequately regulate water use.

Over the past decade, the effects of climate change in El Salvador have intersected with many social problems, including poverty, violence, and drug trafficking. When combined, these factors have exacerbated migration within and across borders. In 2017, the WFP reported that after poverty and unemployment, agricultural losses due to drought and other extreme weather events is a leading cause of migration. This trend is not unique to El Salvador, but is also evident in other Dry Corridor nations. According to the Pew Research Center, “[t]he number of immigrants in the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rose by 25% from 2007 to 2015, in contrast to more modest growth of the country’s overall foreign-born population and a decline from neighboring Mexico.”

Despite its efforts to streamline humanitarian assistance by importing staple crops, the Salvadoran government has been criticized by farmers who are concerned that imports will deflate the prices of the crops that do survive the drought and will force local farmers out of the market. In addition, the government has not made a clear announcement on how it will seek to improve the climate resilience of rural communities most affected by natural disasters.

One of the biggest challenges that threatens El Salvador’s agricultural sector is a lack of financial and technical assistance for the development of climate smart agriculture (CSA) in the country. Additionally, when the government supports imports without considering the potential effects on national production, the economic viability of farmers becomes threatened, as they are faced to compete with imported goods.

When evaluating the environmental aspect of sustainable agriculture in El Salvador, there are a variety of issues that need to be tackled. A poor regulation of chemicals in agriculture has led to impaired water quality, pollution, and resulting health issues. Fluctuating climatic conditions in El Salvador may lead to increased  food insecurity, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) advocates for scaling up CSA by developing resilient varieties of crops, such as drought-tolerant rice and beans; exploring the links between improved soil health and climate change adaptation and mitigation; and developing and applying methods to project the impacts of climate change on agricultural production, such as Climate Analogues, a tool that permits comparisons of projections of future climates at between different locations. Together with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), CIAT developed CSA country profiles, which give an overview of the agricultural challenges in 12 countries, and the ways in which CSA can help countries  adapt to and mitigate climate change.

The CSA country profile for El Salvador was published in 2014. The frequency and intensity of droughts in the country was emphasized several times throughout the report. It is likely, however,  that conditions have worsened in the years following the release of the country profile. CSA technologies and practices that may be of particular benefit in El Salvador include switching to new crop varieties, installing irrigation and water capture systems, and utilizing improved climate information systems. Additionally, I recommend adopting agronomic practices such as pruning, shade cover, and agroforestry to promote water retention and heat mitigation.

The UN identified sustainable agriculture as one of the most important tools to address the challenges of global food security as stressed in Sustainable Development Goal 2. Most of El Salvador’s poor population depend on agriculture to both make a living and to feed themselves. Because of precarious living conditions, they are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Continuous degradation of the environment may lead to intensified competition for remaining resources, with farmers pursuing unsustainable practices that in turn complicates their escape from poverty. In the case of El Salvador, environmental degradation has also led to increasing trends in migration.

Meeting the rising demand for food without pressuring the environment or negatively affecting farmers’ economic viability will require efforts by the incoming Salvadoran administration to adopt  techniques and practices that particularly focus on drought resistance, yet also on producing high yields. The aforementioned CSA technologies and practices can be implemented in El Salvador to combat the frequent and intensifying drought conditions as well as help alleviate poverty, hunger, and reduce inequalities. Because of the effects of climate change on agriculture, food security, and society, there is an urgent need  to adopt CSA techniques and practices in El Salvador.

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Cristina Guevara is a Panamanian graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, where she is concentrating in sustainable development with a focus on Latin America. She previously interned at the Latin America and The Caribbean department at Freedom House and is currently the Graduate Fellow for the Latin American practice at the international strategic advisory firm, McLarty Associates.

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