How Water Shortages Are Fueling Social Conflict In Central American Cities

A paper published in the journal ‘Nature Water’ points to the close correlation between water and food shortages and conflicts in the region’s cities

April 17, 2023 | 08:07 PM

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Bloomberg Línea — Research reveals that a growing water and food shortage caused by climate change is increasing social conflict in violence-prone Central American cities.

A paper published in the journal ‘Nature Water’ reveals how water scarcity affected agricultural production and food security from 1996 to 2016, and analyzes the connection between drought-related food insecurity and the outbreak of conflict along Central America’s so-called dry corridor.

The ‘dry corridor’ is a region along the Pacific coast that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama and includes Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Central American cities, where more than a quarter of the region’s population lacks the income necessary to buy food, report high levels of homicides and urban violence, and which are often associated with the activities of street gangs known as ‘maras’.

Who Are the Maras, the Gangs that El Salvador and Honduras Are Waging War Against?

In addition, rural communities are threatened by the so-called canícula, the dry season that occurs in July and August, and its devastating effects on agriculture, which is the main source of food and income for the region.

One example is the consequences of the 2009 drought in Guatemala, which caused significant decreases in agricultural production and yields of coffee (which dropped by 20%), sugar cane (-10%) and corn (-30%) in the rural area of Retalhuleu in the southwest of the country, where the effects of the canícula are most acute, according to the study.

Watch a video (in English) about the so-called ‘climate whiplash’, the consequences of climate change and drought:


This in turn increased food insecurity in Guatemala City, which is connected to Retalhuleu through the food trade.

“When droughts occur, the flow of food is reduced,” said Martina Sardo, a PhD student at Politecnico di Milano and co-lead author of the study.

“For the first time, in our study, we explicitly consider food security as a central mechanism in the chain linking drought-induced water scarcity and conflict,” Sardo added.

Water availability

The study provides insight into how climate and water availability can impact human well-being and social unrest through food insecurity.


It also shows the importance of strengthening the resilience of rural communities in the developing world to avoid increasing social stress.

“This region is already vulnerable, and climate change is exacerbating these vulnerabilities,” Sardo said. “Improving regional resilience could go a long way toward avoiding food insecurity.”

Historically, quantitative research in this field has focused on precipitation anomalies, without considering their effects on the water-food system.


This new report demonstrates that hydro-climatic extremes increase conflict in fragile societies.

For the new research, a physically based spatially distributed hydro-agrological model was coupled with a complex statistical model that correlates water and food availability and access, explained professor Maria Cristina Rulli, lead author of the paper and coordinator of Glob3ScienCE.

“Conflict in a given location can also be influenced by water scarcity conditions in distant locations, which explains how internal food trade can especially strengthen and expand the water-food-conflict nexus,” Rulli said.

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