The United Nations warned Tuesday that hunger levels are soaring across much of Central America as countries battle economic crises sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme climate events.
The UN's World Food Programme said that levels of hunger had risen nearly four-fold in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, from 2.2 million people affected in 2018 to nearly eight million now.
Of that figure, some 1.7 million people are considered to be in the "emergency" category of food insecurity, meaning they need urgent food assistance, WFP said, urging more international support.
The UN agency said the region, where years of drought and erratic weather had already disrupted food production, had been especially hard-hit by the record 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
"Hurricanes Eta and Iota, that struck Central America in November 2020, upended the lives of 6.8 million people who lost their homes and livelihoods," WFP pointed out.
The hurricanes came as the pandemic was already taking a devastating toll, and dealt a severe blow to millions who had previously been relatively untouched by hunger, including people working in the service economy and the tourism sector.
The hurricanes destroyed more than 200,000 hectares of vital crops across the four countries and more than 10,000 hectares of coffee farmland in Honduras and Nicaragua.
"Considering the level of destruction and setbacks faced by those affected, we expect this to be a long and slow recovery," said WFP regional chief for Latin America and the Caribbean Miguel Barreto.
- 'Rock bottom' -
Before those hurricanes hit, Covid-19 was already taking a devastating toll, as an overwhelming majority of households in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador reported income losses or unemployment.
WFP surveys showed that the number of households in Guatemala reporting they did not have enough to eat had almost doubled compared to pre-pandemic figures, while the numbers in Honduras rose by more than 50 percent.
"Urban and rural communities in Central America have hit rock bottom," Barreto warned.
"The Covid-19-induced economic crisis had already put food on the market shelves out of reach for the most vulnerable people when the twin hurricanes Eta and Iota battered them further," he said.
"Many now have nowhere to live and are staying in temporary shelters, surviving on next to nothing."
With so many homes and farms destroyed, food stocks running out and few opportunities to find work, nearly 15 percent of people surveyed by WFP in January said they were laying concrete plans to migrate.
That marks a significant jump from the eight percent who said they were doing so in a WFP post-drought assessment in 2018.
WFP appealed to international donors to step up support, saying it needed more than $47 million to help 2.6 million people across the four countries over the next six months alone.