An Uphill Battle against Climate Change
Por Zadie Neufville*
The island nations of the Caribbean fear rising sea levels, coastal erosion and the contamination of aquifers with salt water - all caused by climate change.
KINGSTON – The permanent threat of hurricanes, heavy storms, giant waves, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods and droughts give the Caribbean region a difficult outlook for the future, which will be even worse if predictions about global climate change bear out.
Reducing the impact of climate change here requires appropriate planning for natural resource usage and an investment in technologies to adapt to the changes, say local environment-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
But none of this will be easy for countries with few financial resources. According to 1990 data, a plan to protect the Jamaican coast, for example, carried a price tag of 462 million dollars, or about 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
The most serious environmental threats for the small island nations are rising sea levels, coastal erosion, salt-water intrusion into estuaries and aquifers, and an escalation in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, says Jamaican meteorologist Clifford Mahlung.
Over the next 50 years, submergence levels in the Caribbean are expected to be 15 to 20 cm greater than the world average. This would largely be the result of water extraction for domestic use and petroleum drilling on land, as well as the compaction of sediments due mainly to the loss of coastal vegetation and soil erosion.
It is on the coastal plains of the Caribbean where most economic development projects are concentrated. Tourism, agriculture and industry are the leading money-earners and employers, but also have the greatest environmental impact.
As seawater invades water tables, rivers and streams, as well as the region's premier crops of banana, rice, and sugar cane will suffer from the effects of excessive water and increased salinity.
Problems associated with the disposal of sewage and solid waste disposal and the contamination of ground water supplied will also increase. And the health of the regional populations will suffer, as 60 percent resides in the coastal plains.
Several NGOs are taking action in an attempt to reduce such impacts.
The Negril Environment Protection Association (NEPA), in Jamaica, has decided to include local fisherfolk in its initiatives.
NEPA's executive director, Susan Anderson, says that the last 10 years have been marked by over-fishing and dying reefs, with negative impacts on the Negril fishing community's standard of living.
Across the region, the bleaching caused by higher water temperatures is killing coral. The reefs serve to protect beaches and provide sand, meaning that their decline causes even more problems for Negril.
From 1995 to 1998, for example, 10 meters of the area's world famous white sand beach washed away. University of the West Indies geologist Ted Robinson says it is a combination of human activities, increased storm activity and the 1.5-degree-Celsius rise in average sea temperatures recorded here.
In eastern Jamaica's Portland Point, the problem is that deforestation is causing higher temperatures and reduced rainfalls. The meteorological services indicate that since 1997 there has been a 60 percent reduction in the usual 5,200 mm of annual precipitation.
As a result of this change, the average temperature in the area hills rose four degrees, reports activist Marguerite Gauron, of the Portland Point Environmental Protection Association.
The Association is monitoring climate change and attempting to replant hillsides left bare by deforestation and the removal of trees to plant coffee, one of the island’s more economically viable crops.
This initiative is similar to the reforestation efforts on the hillsides of Camp Perrin, located 220 km from the Haitian capital. Problems began there when the peasant farming community was devastated by the effects of cheap agricultural imports.
When profits from their crops disappeared, many farmers resorted to charcoal production to supplement their income.
The activity stripped the hillsides of vegetation, causing reduced rainfall and productivity, indicated the Organization to Rehabilitate the Environment, another Haitian NGO.
Given this scenario, planning is essential.
Eric Dannenmaier of the Canadian Foundation of the Americas (FOCAL) believes climatic changes caused 1998's Hurricane Mitch, which killed an estimated 19,000 people in Central America and the displacement of some three million people.
Climate change threatens the viability of Caribbean communities and economies because they lack adequate planning, Dannenmaier pointed out.
Key factors include the long-term impact of population growth, the over-exploitation of resources and strategic energy policies. Another important element is the management of sanitation and industrial waste.
The NGOs consider technology transfer to be essential for reducing the vulnerability of small island states to climate change.
For many countries of the region, however, it would be impossible to come up with the necessary resources, unless the world's industrialized nations keep their promises to provide assistance, a commitment they made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
* Zadie Neufville is an IPS correspondent.