Everything pointed to a perfectly normal Sunday — a bit sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon. The evening of 3 June, however, what came down from the sky wasn’t rain: it was volcanic ash. Then came the eruption of the Fuego Volcano. The ash that descended over homes, crops, roads and rivers suddenly seem like a black and white picture.
The emergency forced the evacuation of over 12,800 people living on the slopes of the volcano and affected thousands in the departments close to the site: Escuintla, Chimaltenango and Sacatepéquez.
Roadblocks to buying food
“The rivers of rocks and debris flowing from the volcano towards our communities left us without roads. It took away our jobs, and now we have no food,” says María Carmen, who was affected along with hundreds of families living close to the volcano.
The volcanic ash affected 16,932 farmers and their families, according the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food along with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Chimaltenango was hit the hardest, with 9,396 families experiencing destruction and devastation. Subsistence farmers and their families lost their crops, their main source of food. Aside from destroying maize — harvested only once a year — the layer of ash covering the soil will affect sowing in the coming months.
In Escuintla, the eruption cut off communication and destroyed roads. People working as day labourers on sugarcane plantations could no longer take the bus to get to work. Many lost their jobs. With no jobs and no income, workers could no longer buy food.
Food insecurity before the eruption
Communities living by the volcano were already vulnerable to food insecurity even before the eruption. A field assessment carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP), with the support of the Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat (SESAN) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), shows that 830,000 people are highly vulnerable, and that the situation could worsen during the lean season, which starts in mid-April and ends in August.
Using cash to feed families
As part of its emergency response, WFP is using cash transfers to support some 10,000 people over the span of three months. María Carmen is one of them. She came all the way to the Siquinalá Township in Escuintla to receive the money which will enable her to buy groceries at the market or at a local shop.
“I have 12 children,” says María Carmen. “They like vegetables and fruits, and with this cash I can now buy ingredients to prepare a vegetable soup, rice and other things that I know will feed my family.”
Cash transfers have many advantages: beneficiaries can choose fresh and nutritious food and the money benefits local businesses and the economy.
María Carmen says that the fear the Fuego Volcano triggered in the locals remains, but that on the days when they get cash transfers that fear subsides — at least for a few hours. For the next two months, WFP will continue providing assistance and education courses on healthy eating. This way, families can make the most out of buying fresh food.
“This is a relief for us because we can eat what we need,” says Maria Carmen.
Written by Irina Ruano
Read more about the WFP emergency operation in Guatemala here.