Drought, Canícula and Climate Change in Guatemala

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Cover Photo: CONRED

By Paris Rivera, Climatologist, INSIVUMEH (National Institute for Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology, and Hydrology)

Guatemala usually experiences drought when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean is warmer than normal, a phenomenon known as El Niño. When oceanic-atmospheric conditions favor El Niño, drought and extended canículas are possible. This occurs due to changes in the global climate that alter water cycles and raise ocean temperatures. Global warming is triggering ever more intense and frequent weather events in Guatemala.

A canícula, or veranillo, is a weather phenomenon that is characterized by shortage or absence of water during Guatemala’s rainy season, according to INSIVUMEH. Canículas are periods, usually of 10 to 20 days, with little or no rain. During this period, dry winds impede the path of humidity and therefore the country experiences a dry heat. In the last years these warm and dry periods have been more prolonged. This new trend is attributed to climate change.

Drought is a prolonged dry period during which the amount of water available in a certain region is below normal, and so is insufficient to meet the needs of the region’s human beings, animals, and plants. In Guatemala, drought has principally affected the semiarid zone of the country, known as the “corredor seco,” (a large eastern swath of Guatemala, from the departments of Izabal and Baja Verapaz in the north to Santa Rosa and Jutiapa in the south), but it is believed that this semiarid zone will extend into the altiplano (the western half of Guatemala, except two coastal departments) over the next years. This prediction is based on climate change projections by the IPCC. According to INSIVUMEH, drought years and sometimes years with El Niño caused prolonged canículas. Examples of these years are 2001, 2009, and 2014, in all of which Guatemala experienced drought.

In 2014, Guatemala was affected by a drought that caused a prolonged canícula that saw 45 straight days without rain. (Editorial note: According to government authorities, over 70% of the country’s basic foods harvest (including beans and maize) was lost. Most of these harvests belonged to small producers, affecting over a million people directly and raising food prices, especially in the “corredor seco,” where climate change had already caused massive losses for the region’s other principal source of income, coffee harvests, through the fungus la roya. All of this exacerbated “malnutrition in children under five years old and women of reproductive age, raising the risk of social and family conflict and increasing flows of internal migration and migration abroad” (“Reporte de Situación No. 1 Sequía”).)

This drought was caused by a slight increase in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean. This warming of approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius above normal lasted several months in 2014. Though this period of prolonged warming caused the drought, it must be noted that it was never considered an El Niño event, because the differentials in temperature did not meet standards set by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

In the future we can expect that, because of climate change, droughts and canículas in Guatemala will increase in intensity, severity, extension, and duration, while also increasing in frequency and causing more vulnerability and damages in affected populations.

Guatemala cannot compare its contribution to climate change with those of the countries of the developed world, but because of its high level of vulnerability and low level of environmental development, it is suffering the consequences of this phenomenon. Added to this, volcanic eruptions, the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial activity (especially given that there is no water law in Guatemala) in the country do not only pollute our environment, but also accelerate the effects of environmental degradation that our country will experience because of climate change.