Extreme weather events in Central America are becoming more frequent and more severe, far outpacing resilience and recovery. In Guatemala hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as droughts and El Niño and La Niña weather pattern changes, are intensifying. Guatemala is prone to sudden-onset climate events, including 12 hurricanes and tropical storms over the past 20 years. Hurricane Mitch (1998), Tropical Storm Stan (2005). Tropical Storm Agatha (2010) alone cost Guatemala more than $2.4 billion in damages. But slow-onset events, particularly drought, have also been a challenge for the country.
From 2012 to 2016, Guatemala experienced one of the worst droughts in the country’s history. In 2012, drought affected more than 80 percent of the country. The drought ruined half of the maize and bean crops, causing an estimated loss of around $10 million. In 2014, another prolonged drought struck, which prompted the government of Guatemala to declare a state of emergency. The drought negatively impacted 70 to 80 percent of basic food crops.
Some 236,000 families, or around 1.1 million people, were directly affected. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that in late 2018, poor households in the “Dry Corridor” of the country “were still working to recover from indebtedness and lost assets” from the 2014 drought.
The region of Chiquimula is in what is called the region’s “Dry Corridor,” and faces frequent drought. Many of its communities also were hit hard by hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 and tropical storm Celia in 2022. .Almost 70 percent of the total population—290,638 people—were affected in some way. Infrastructure and agriculture were hit particularly hard.
Eta and Iota displaced hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. The storms triggered massive landslides and flooding that wrought destruction and affected more than 2.4 million people in Guatemala. It is likely that the prolonged drought meant that soil was too dry to sufficiently absorb water that resulted in flash floods. More than 300,000 people were evacuated in the face of the storms, with more than 230,000 remaining displaced in the short-term. While the number of displaced people has dropped dramatically, homes are still badly damaged or destroyed.
Eta and Iota also took a toll on food security, damaging 130,000 cultivated hectares, including maize, bean, plantain, banana, tomatoes, onion, broccoli, cardamom, and coffee. According to the World Food Program (WFP), the hurricane damage exacerbated food insecurity for 1.8 million already-food-insecure Guatemalans. Eta and Iota also damaged homes, livestock, water systems, and infrastructure, such as schools and health centers, making recovery slow-going.
People in the area faced significant losses and are still struggling to recover. Crop failures affected their livelihood and triggered food insecurity. The storms destroyed people’s homes, forcing them to try to rebuild or relocate without the proper resources to do so.
Matters are worse in rural, poor, and indigenous areas, where government support is traditionally lacking and where the absence of land titles makes it difficult for those who do not own their land to rebuild.
Two years on from Eta and Iota, people in the area still need significant support—and more must be done to prepare for future such climate hazards. Two years on from Eta and Iota, families in affected communities still need support to rebuild their homes and meet basic needs, including food aid. Half of the people Refugees International interviewed had been unable to return to their homes. These communities tend to rely on a patchwork mix of efforts—from municipalities, NGOs, community support, and remittances—to piece together some semblance of recovery. But affected communities are typically left with a series of untenable options: they can rebuild in hazard-prone areas; move to areas with higher rents than they can afford; or remain in a protracted state of displacement.
Climate change has made hurricanes and droughts in Guatemala more intense. It has induced anomalously warm ocean and air temperatures, supercharging Atlantic hurricanes to become stronger, wetter, and prone to stalling over land longer. These changing conditions have also induced more “rapid intensification” of hurricanes, or an increase in rotational wind speeds of 35 mph or more within a 24-hour period. Eta and Iota both embodied these climate-charged features, with Eta intensifying at a particularly exceptional rate. In addition, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists find El Niño and El Niña weather patterns have already been changing, and that droughts induced by the 2015–2016 El Niño were partially attributable to human influences.
Two years after Eta and Iota, Guatemalans continue to deal with the aftershocks. Families in Chiquimula are still struggling with issues of shelter, poverty, and food insecurity. Many of them remain in a state of displacement or are at risk of displacement. The government of Guatemala has not stepped up to meet their needs, and the international community has not either.