In drought-hit central Nicaragua, water 'is like looking for gold'

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Teustepe (Nicaragua) (AFP)

Nicaragua may boast a southern lake that is Central America's biggest body of freshwater, but in the center of the country years of drought have taken a severe toll.

"This is like looking for gold," Pedro Membreno, a 55-year-old resident said as he dug into the rocky earth near the town of Teustepe, one of 33 communities in a parched corridor.

His hole was already 15 meters (50 feet) deep, and still there was no water.

He and hundreds of other rural dwellers are desperately searching for aquifers, underground layers of water in permeable rock.

But many have simply dried up under the drought that has dragged on for three years now.

Nicaragua's central region has witnessed an absence of rain and temperatures hovering around 36 to 39 degrees centigrade (97 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit).

Conditions worsened further over the past year with El Nino, the cyclical climatic phenomenon that warms the eastern Pacific, heating up and drying out much of Central America.

The change accelerates deforestation and prompts farmers to divert scarce water for their crops.

The result has been despair for the towns of Teustepe, Ciudad Dario, Las Banderas, San Francisco Libre and Tipitapam, stretching from the center to the north of the country, one of the poorest in the Americas.

- Dry riverbeds -

Their towns lie in arid fields, among bald hills where plants have shriveled, and dry riverbeds. Women and children can be seen walking along the roads with empty containers, looking for water.

Despite the apocalyptic scenes, and worried protests that have sprung up in some outlying suburbs of the capital Managua to the west, environmentalists say there is no danger of the entire country going thirsty.

Still, said Denis Melendez, a coordinator for an environmental umbrella group called the National Platform for Risk Management, the drought was having a sharp impact.

"We knew that the climatic phenomenon was going to affect severely affect us. That was clear. But this prolongation of nearly three years has exacerbated the situation," he said.

"In the hand-dug wells, people are saying the water is much deeper than before, that they have to go further down or the waters have receded like in the big lakes."

Silvia Luna, aged 29, confirmed the worry felt by many.

She was bathing and washing clothes with other women and children in a meager waterhole located between boulders, a couple of hundred meters (yards) from her home.

"Sometimes the waterhole is dry and we wait for water to come out for us to do our chores," she said.

- Economic impact -

The drought has affected parts of the economy, notably agriculture and fishing.

"In the countryside people no longer want to farm -- it's no longer attractive for those people because they have lost genetic material, the soil is degraded," explained Melendez.

"The hope is that, after El Nino, we'll see La Nina," a different phenomenon that usually brings heavy rains, he added.

The capital Managua should have a buffer against the drought because it sits on Lake Xolotlan.

But Oscar Vilchez, a 55-year-old fisherman who lives on its banks, said: "There are no fish. They have all gone deeper inside."

In Ciudad Dario, 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Managua, one resident, Maura Centeno, said fish were dying in what was a local lagoon. "It's a puddle now," she said.

While El Nino was getting much of the rap for the extended drought, some experts noted it wasn't solely responsible.

"We are doing things to make the impact dramatically worse. We are seeing a direct relationship between the deforestation, the drying up of the well and the rivers, and the level of underground water," said Rosario Saenz, an ecologist with the Foundation for Nicaraguan Development.

"In the Pacific dry zone they are continuing to strip forests and there is no policy for reforestation. We have asked for them to declare a forest moratorium in rural areas," he said.

Although there are no official figures, environmental groups estimate that 80,000 hectares (nearly 200,000 acres) of forest are lost each year.

Big agriculture exacerbates the problem by damming rivers for irrigation, leaving communities downstream without water, said Saenz.