Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom, declared a state of "public disaster" as a measure to address the food and nutrition crisis affecting 54,000 families that has killed some 25 children.
The declaration will allow the Guatemalan government to access international aid earmarked for these cases and mobilize resources from the national budget more quickly, as the president said in his formal message to the nation.
"I have decided to use the Public Order Act and declare a state of public calamity throughout the national territory, since the consequences of inadequate food and nutrition affect not only the departments in the Corredor Seco, but the entire country," said Colom.
In Corredor Seco, which includes seven provinces, cases of malnutrition due to drought and the economic crisis have soared.
Some 54,000 families are suffering from hunger according to Guatemalan authorities, and it is feared that another 400,000 may be affected by the end of the year.
According to AFP, a study by the Secretaría de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional (Sesan), submitted on August 16, "indicates that the number of communities at risk of hunger rose by 113% over the past three months due to drought." According to the agency, 462 people died from this cause between January and July this year.
For its part, the World Food Program (WFP) began on Tuesday to distribute 20 tons of nutritional biscuits in 164 communities in the hardest hit areas.
The president described the situation as a tragedy of historic proportions because of the extent of the population it affects.
Colom said in his message that, in addition to the effects of the drought and the economic crisis, a long history of inequality has led to shamefully high rates of poverty, abject poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala for a long time.
"Insufficient food and nutrition, malnutrition in its various manifestations, is a historical and structural problem of the country."
"So I make a fervent appeal to all sectors of national life to contribute to addressing this serious problem and its various manifestations, both in regard to emergency action and to those deeper issues we have to resolve," said the president.
In April 2009, UNICEF issued a report warning that one in two Guatemalan children suffered from chronic malnutrition and 80% of indigenous children under 5 have serious nutritional problems.
Despite being far from the economic situation of Haiti (the poorest country in Latin America), Guatemala has twice the number of malnutrition cases as that Caribbean country.
Of the 13.3 million Guatemalans, more than half live in poverty and their main livelihood is agriculture, affected each year by droughts and floods that cause crop losses of maize and beans, their main livelihood.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland said it was necessary for Guatemala to declare a state of calamity to activate the emergency assistance programs, and that's what the Guatemalan president did.
For its part, the government has devoted U.S. $ 7.5 million so far to assist the families in worst condition.
But the government budget to combat malnutrition had to be reduced as a result of the international financial crisis since the country received less and less tax revenues and remittances.
So for now Guatemala is dependent on emergency aid and its own ability to mobilize in order to alleviate the crisis and avert famine.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Many relief agencies have a strong presence in Guatemala already but American Catholics can help by making a donation through Catholic Relief Services which has a significant existing program in the country.