El Salvador counts cost as crops destroyed by floods

Abelardo Lopez wades towards his house in San Francisco Menendez Floodwaters are gradually receding but it will take time to repair the damage

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The United Nations has launched an emergency appeal to help an estimated 300,000 people in El Salvador after heavy rains caused widespread flooding across Central America. The immediate concerns are to provide shelter, food and health care, but tackling the long-term effects will be difficult and costly.

After days of torrential rain, the water is finally drying up in Abelardo Lopez's farm, close to El Salvador's border with Guatemala.

But it will take much longer until Mr Lopez can absorb the cost of the damages.

"We practically lost everything. The Paz river flooded over and the water inundated all the fields. This you see here is the little we managed to save," he says, showing hundreds of damaged corn cobs.

The corn is drying out on the side of the street, with Mr Lopez hoping he can save some by using it as animal feed.

Dozens of other farmers in the area are doing the same. They harvested the corn while the rain was still falling.

On the first sunny day, as the women lay out clothes to dry on fences and trees, the men were working on the corn.

Flood risks

Torrential rains caused by a tropical depression battered Central America for 10 days, causing more than 100 deaths.

Abelardo Lopez Farmers like Abelardo Lopez are trying to salvage what they can of their crops

In El Salvador, more than 30 people died, most in landslides, and more than 50,000 had to leave their homes.

El Salvador is used to devastating floods. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, which left thousands dead across the region, caused $400m (£250m) in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

But this year's rainfall was twice that recorded during Mitch, El Salvador officials say.

Water levels rose by 3m (10ft) or more, Mr Lopez said.

"A majority of people here lost everything because their houses filled up with water."

It will take weeks for the government to assess the full economic impact of the floods. Industry insiders say at least 40% of El Salvador's crops were destroyed.

During a visit to another badly hit area, President Mauricio Funes promised farmers that the government would buy up the next harvest to help them with their loans.

"We've lost a significant amount of the harvest of beans, corn, coffee and other crops too. Thousands of homes were flooded, some were damaged, others destroyed," said Mr Funes.

"I can assure you that these losses will be considerable, greater than in other occasions in the past when we were affected by storms and similar natural phenomena."

In a meeting with other Central American leaders to discuss the aftermath of the storms, Mr Funes said that the damage caused by the rains was some $650m, equal to 3% of the country's GDP.

Reina Isabel Torres Food seller Reina Isabel Torres says wholesale prices have jumped

People around the country are already worried about the possible effects on the economy.

In El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador, people in the main wholesale market say prices of staples have already gone up.

"Before it started raining the prices were lower. I would buy corn for $14 per 100kg (220lb), and now it costs $25," says market vendor Francisco Ortiz. "Prices have gone up."

Another seller is also worried. Reina Isabel Torres makes pupusas, El Salvador's national dish, which consist of corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans or meat.

"The rise in prices affects us because the dough becomes more expensive," she says. "I use both corn and rice flour to make the tortillas. Since corn is more expensive right now, I'm adding more rice flour and less corn.

"If the prices stay like this, we can make smaller pupusas or we might have to sell them at a higher price."

Lost harvest

In the past, El Salvador was self-sufficient when it came to the production of staples such as beans and corn for internal consumption.

But because of poor harvests, the country has been importing these foodstuffs in recent years. Industry insiders say the latest rains will confirm this pattern.

According to Santos Adelmo Rivas, head of the farmers' association, 35% of the corn harvest is at risk, as well as 60% of the bean harvest.

Damaged papaya fields in El Salvador Agriculture is a key sector in El Salvador

Production of coffee, one of the country's main exports, is also likely to be affected.

In a 2010 study on the economic effects of climate change, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said that Central America's agricultural would suffer increasingly in the future.

For those living in the flood plains surrounding the Lempa river, the longest in El Salvador, damage is already a reality.

As he wades through waist-high water to reach his house, Jose Luis Rodriguez says that he has lost a harvest almost every year recently.

"I've lived in this area for the past 56 years and I have lived through all the floods," he says. "My corn fields have been destroyed."

Despite calls by the government to convince people to leave certain areas at risk, Mr Rodriguez says he has no intention of abandoning his home.

"I've never gone anywhere," he says. "I didn't even leave when the (civil) war was raging. I've suffered through floods, some huge ones, this doesn't worry me much."

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