SEATTLE — More than 54 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, and nearly half of the population resides in rural areas. Many of the challenges that arise for impoverished individuals in Guatemala can be linked to water quality and access. In recent years, water quality in Guatemala has become an even more pressing concern as the country is experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades.
The current drought began in 2012, and today affects 3.5 million individuals throughout Central America, 1.5 million of whom are in Guatemala. The drought is a huge concern for several reasons. First, nearly one-third of Guatemala’s labor force is involved in agriculture. The current drought has led to lower crop production. It is estimated that in 2015, Guatemala suffered a 50 to 100 percent loss in its maize (corn) and bean harvest, the equivalent of $44.5 million.
Less crop production due to lack of water is not only bad economically, but it also leads to food insecurity and the exacerbation of an already chronic malnutrition problem. Approximately 43 percent of Guatemalan children under five are chronically malnourished; among indigenous Guatemalan children as many as 80 percent are malnourished. The drought has caused three to 10 percent of children to face acute malnutrition. Current stunting rates in primary schools in rural areas, where the drought has the strongest effects, are at 41 percent.
The geography of Guatemala is tropical and mountainous, with a climate susceptible to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, all of which can wash away valuable topsoil and weaken the ability for the land to capture water. Heavy rains and easily polluted water systems in rural areas lead to a high risk of waterborne diseases, particularly hepatitis A, typhoid fever and bacterial diarrhea. The drought limits access to clean water sources for drinking and agricultural use.
Water quality in Guatemala is further damaged by the drought because solid and liquid waste is typically thrown out in rivers and streams, contaminating some of the only water sources available and increasing risk for diarrhea.
Despite the challenges brought on by the drought, there has been a great effort to improve water quality in Guatemala. In fact, the country reduced the proportion of individuals without access to drinking water by 50 percent, meeting the 2015 Millennium Development Goal. Currently, 93 percent of all Guatemalans and 87 percent of rural inhabitants have access to non-contaminated water.
There is still a great deal of work to be done, and several nonprofits are collaborating with the Guatemalan government to ensure that key components for water access, such as water quality monitoring systems and effective irrigation technologies, are set up, particularly for impoverished individuals in rural areas who are heavily affected by droughts and poor quality water.
– Nicole Toomey