Caught between floods and drought: Farmers in Nicaragua living in uncertainty

Across the Central American Dry Corridor, communities are facing increasingly extreme weather. In Nicaragua, the region's poorest country, subsistence farmers like Blanca Landero Betarco face a daily battle.

The air is dry and the heat intense in the village of La Grecia in north-western Nicaragua. The temperature is a little more forgiving inside the modest red brick house where Blanca Landero Betarco shows off her small harvest of red beans.

Politics | 19.04.2019

Like her parents, and their parents before them, 60-year-old Betarco lives from subsistence farming — growing beans, rice, corn and wheat. However in recent years, the land hasn't yielded enough to subsist on.

"I don't know how many more years I'll be able to stay living here on this land, in these conditions — whether I'm going to starve to death," Betarco told DW. "Because that's what this land might have in store for us: death."

Read more: The women left to face climate change and overfishing alone 

Nature and Environment | 11.04.2019

La Grecia is in the Chinandega area in a region known as the Dry Corridor that extends along the Pacific coast of Central America, through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

When El Nino hit from 2014 to 2016, drought laid waste to food production in the Dry Corridor. Betarco and her family made it through on the little money two of her four children earned working at local factories, but hunger became an everyday reality.

"We lost everything in those years, our whole harvests of beans, plus rice and corn," she says. "Sometimes we would skip one or two meals to make the food last longer. I don't know how we managed to survive."

For some, life in Betarco's village became unsustainable. "Some people starved to death, others got skinny," she says. "Those years were very hard around here. A lot of people left for Costa Rica, Panama and Spain."

Increasingly frequent droughts and floods have made growing beans, rice, corn and wheat more preciarious

Nicaraguans on the move

According to local NGO, the Humboldt Center, 90% of maize and 60% of bean crops in Nicaragua were lost in 2016. Another NGO, Germanwatch, meanwhile, ranks Nicaragua — the poorest state in Central America — among the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Rainfall there has becomeincreasingly irregular.

"Because of climate change, the conditions for agricultural production in the Dry Corridor don’t exist anymore," Victor Campos, director of the Humboldt Center, told DW. "That creates a food crisis, and if there isn't another kind of income available for families, it leads to famine."

Read more: Building walls to keep climate refugees out  

Read more: Nicaragua deserves peace,' says exiled student protest leader 

Accordingto the UNHCR, more than 55,500 people have left Nicaragua for neighboring Costa Rica in the last year. Political upheaval may be the most immediate cause, but climate change is increasingly recognized by organizations like the United Nations as a factor driving Central American migration.

Tania Guillen, a Nicaraguan researcher at the Climate Service Center Germany, told DW that with small farmers losing crops, food insecurity in Nicaragua "could be a decisive factor to migrate to other countries in the region."

It now rains on only half the number of days each year than it did a decade ago

Support from remittances

Betarco's 25 year-old son, Norlan Alberto Martinez Silvia, fled because he couldn't see a future in Nicaragua, partly because of the strong and lasting drought.

"I came to Costa Rica to look for better economic conditions," he told DW, as he clocked off at 6am from his job as a security guard at a private school in Cartago near the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

"I worked with my mother before, but it didn't generate any money, just more or less enough food to feed oneself."

Read more: Women custodians of biodiversity hold key to food security

Now he can send more money back to his family than he could if he had stayed at home, where his monthly salary at a food processing plant was equivalent to $200 (€177) a month. In Costa Rica, he earns the equivalent of $600 (€532), and sends half to his mother. It was difficult for Betarco to see her son leave, but the money he sends is essential. "He sends me money so that I'm able to survive here," says Betarco.

Struggling to adapt

El Nino marked a low point for the Dry Corridor, but communities have continued to struggle. The Humboldt Center's latest research indicates that temperatures are rising, and are likely to hit extreme highs with increasing frequency.

Betarco's last two harvests have seen little improvement on 2016 and she feels the environmental changes seem to be permanent.

"In Chinandega, we had a great river; today there is no river, it's more like a puddle."

The shortage of drinking water has also made it increasingly difficult to look after her livestock.

Water shortages have made it difficult for Blanca Landero Betarco to keep her livestock and crops healthy

Read more:  Could hi-tech Netherlands-style farming feed the world? 

It now rains on only half the number of days each year that it did a decade ago, yet too much rain in too short a period is also a problem and the Dry Corridor is seeing more frequent floods.

In May this year, a month's worth of rain fell in just five days, which means the first harvest of the year will likely fail, according to the Humboldt Center.

This uncertainty is one of the greatest challenges for farmers like Betarco. They can't plan when to sow as the plants can't thrive in soil that is too arid or too wet. 

"Climate change has affected our production a lot," Betarco says. "It means that today it rains, tomorrow it doesn't. And then there is such heat."

Read more: Germany's farmers feel the heat of climate change 

Since 2016, Betarco has been measuring rainfall levels each day using a plastic tube called a pluviometer. She pays close attention to the beginning of the rainy season and measures the soil to determine when it's best to sow her seeds. It gives her a small sense of preparedness against the uncertainty. However with the prognosis for the conditions in the year ahead not looking good, she can only hope the harvest will exceed expectations: "We still have to wait and see about this year."  

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


An old dead tree lies like a skeleton on the scorched earth in a property located to the west of Tamworth, a rural (and country music) center in the state of New South Wales, Australia. Although still winter, 100 percent of New South Wales is now in drought, with the state of Queensland to the north also dry. The drought is expected to continue for months, and bushfire season has started early.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


In what could be a scene from the red planet, a kangaroo's shadow is captured as the animal drinks from a water tank on a barren farm to the west of Gunnedah, a town in northwest New South Wales. Since the beginning of June 2018, the drought has continued unabated. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," property owner Ash Whitney told Reuters.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Fight for survival

Sheep have long been the backbone of the Australian agricultural sector, grazing the nation's vast open plains and providing meat and wool for international markets. But now farmers suffering from drought are having to shoot their sheep for lack of pasture. The federal government's drought relief package announced in August 2018 will not make up for stock losses.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Weather patterns

A farmer ploughing arid land near Gunnedah inadvertently creates vast, eerily beautiful symmetrical patterns that ultimately signal crop failure. Greg Stones is a farmer who grows grains and runs livestock in the same area. "This would be the first time in two generations, back to the 1930s, that we haven't got a crop up in the autumn or winter time," he told AFP.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


"The land is too dry ... We've put cattle on the highway [near the farm] for the first time in my life [so] they get a bit of rough grass," Greg Stones continued. This image from the far western town of Walgett in New South Wales shows a lone farmer attending to his water trough and tanks on his desolate, drought-stricken property in July 2018.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Grain train

Sheep eat grain dropped on a desert-scape that was once once fertile grazing land on the outskirts of Tamworth in central New South Wales. But the extra feed is causing financial ruin. "This drought is longer and more widespread than any drought we've seen in over 50 years, so that's why we've got to provide additional support," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull upon announcing an aid package.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

'Too late'

A farmer feeds his cattle branches cut from a tree on his property located west of Gunnedah in June 2018. Though aid has since been offered to these farmers, "It was probably a little bit late coming for some people. They didn't act fast enough," another nearby farmer, Col Barton, told AFP. The only hope now is rain.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Cracked earth

Drought is a naturally occurring phenomenon across the highly arid Australian continent. This close-up view of the dried-out Wellshot Creek that runs through a cattle station in Longreach in the state of Queensland captured a 2014 drought that was the most widespread on record for the state. Around 80 percent of the region was affected.

A cow lies exhausted in the parched earth (AP Photo/Peter Lorimer)

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Millennium Drought

A lone cow sits in a parched paddock in northwest New South Wales in October 2006 during the longest widespread drought in history. Then, farmers also had to hand-feed stock. This big dry was worse and more widespread than ever before, posing a massive economic challenge to the Earth's driest inhabited continent and a debate about whether farmers should even run livestock on such marginal land.