(CNN) -- Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has declared a state of national calamity because so many citizens do not have food or proper nutrition.
Sisters Vidalia, left, and Maribel Agustin, who suffer from malnutrition, sit at a shelter in Guatemala in August.
Speaking in a nationally televised address late Tuesday, Colom said his declaration will make it easier to get food to the thousands of Guatemalan families who are in dire need.
"This will help us access resources from the international community that are generously offered for this type of situation and to mobilize national resources more rapidly," he said.
The United Nations' World Food Programme says Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Chronic undernutrition affects about half of the nation's children under the age of 5, the U.N. agency said.
Colom said the nation's food problems are the result of a drought this year, global warming and the effects of the international economic crisis. He also cited the Central American nation's "history of unfairness that has made Guatemala live since long ago with high and shameful poverty levels, extreme poverty and undernutrition."
According to the World Bank, about 75 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty level, which is defined as an income that is not sufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and basic services. Almost 58 percent of the population have incomes below the extreme poverty line, which is defined as the amount needed to purchase a basic basket of food.
"This is the cause of the food and nutritional crisis that this country is going through," Colom said. "There is food. What we don't have are the financial means so that those who are affected can buy the available food. ... Let's not wait until we have a famine to act."
Poverty is more pronounced among indigenous populations and those who live in rural areas. In the nation's highlands, where many indigenous people live, seven of 10 children under age 5 are malnourished, the World Food Programme says.
About 40 percent of the nation's more than 13.2 million citizens are indigenous Mayans, according to the CIA World Fact Book.