| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Mexico is being battered its worst drought in seven decades, which has devastated farm life and is expected to continue into next year.
The lack of rainfall has affected almost 70 percent of the country and northern states like Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, Sonora, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas have suffered the most acute water shortage.
Due to the drought and a cold snap at the start of the year, the government has cut its forecast for corn production two times in 2011. It now expects a harvest of 20 million tonnes compared to a previous estimate of 23 million.
Crops that cover tens of thousands of acres have been lost this year and roughly 450,000 cattle have died in arid pastures. Crucial dams, typically full at this time of year, are at 30 to 40 percent of capacity.
"This is very serious," Ignacio Rivera, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, told Reuters. "Statistics on precipitation in the country show us that this year has been the driest in the last 70 years."
The country has total arable land of 22 million hectares (54.4 million acres) that can be tilled over two planting seasons while the national cattle herd last year was just over 32.6 million.
Mexico is one of the world's five top corn producers and the government expects output to recover to 25 million tonnes in 2012, aided by reorganization of the cultivated areas.
Rivera said that of the 8.1 million hectares of farmland insured by the government against natural disaster, some 600,000 claims have been lodged to recover losses on 3.8 million hectares. The Mexican government has so far set aside some 1.6 billion pesos ($113 million) to cover the losses.
Forecasts do not signal any near-term relief, but rather more losses ahead as the winter season brings damaging frost.
"It's a troubling situation, and is more worrisome because the rainy season is over... the hope is that by June it starts to rain," said Felipe Arreguin, deputy director of the National Water Commission (Conagua).
In the northern state of Durango, where a third of the population lives in the countryside, authorities expect significant losses in grain and seed production as well as bean and corn, which are a staple in the Mexican diet.
"It's a tragedy because there is virtually no harvest. It's a critical situation that we don't even have beans for home consumption," the state governor Jorge Herrera told Reuters.
Official figures show an expected 28 percent loss in production of beans this year, while the recovery to historical levels of 1.2 million tonnes will depend on the weather.
If the drought does not lift soon, analysts say authorities will be forced to raise its food imports to cover lower domestic production.
(Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera; Editing by Marguerita Choy)