At least 257 cows have been confirmed dead as a months-old drought tightens its grip on Costa Rica's barren Northern Zone.

The deaths have spread across 54 ranches in the canton of Los Chiles, which borders Nicaragua in north-central Costa Rica.

The nation's ombudswoman, whose title in Spanish translates literally as the "defender of the inhabitants," yesterday called for the government to declare an "agricultural and public health emergency," the wire service ACAN-EFE reported.

"We are talking about a lot of people who live off agriculture and also need water to satisfy their basic food and cleaning necessities," said Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada.

Though a slight rain was reported yesterday evening, officials in the region were looking at contingencies in case the trickle does not pan out into the life-giving showers that are desperately needed.

"It is very difficult to predict what will happen in the coming weeks if the rains don't begin," said Eliud Herrera, regional director of the Production Ministry's National Animal Health Department (SENASA).

An emergency task force with representatives from the Production Ministry, the National Emergency Commission, the Cattle Farmers' Chamber and the local government met yesterday afternoon to explore options.

Following the meeting, Herrera said those options include supplying local farmers with alternate feed for their cattle to make up for the decimated pastures, and digging new wells to find water.

"We need resources to deal with this situation," he told The Tico Times. "We are looking for the central government's help to get resources to the farmers to buy their feed."

The drought has also dried up drinking water, and 10 1,500-liter tanks of potable water have been sent to the region, while water tankers are visiting the areas hardest hit by the drought, Herrera said.

Meanwhile, concerns for the area's agricultural crops will grow as long as the rain holds off. EFE reported that 74 percent of Los Chiles' bean fields have been affected by the drought, and losses have soared to more than $2 million.

According to Javier Avila, the Production Ministry's Northern Zone regional director, there are 8,000 hectares of citrus crops and 2,000 hectares of sugarcane planted in the region as well that are already feeling the drought.

But while the effects are already visible in the yellow and withered fields, Avila said it is still too soon to say how hard the producers will be hit. Neither crop will be harvested until late this year or early next year.

"With rain, they could begin to recover," he said.

In a region that depends almost entirely on cattle and agriculture, all eyes are turned to the heavens.