Climate Change, Land Use, and the Future of Water in Belize

The reality of climate change has many of us questioning how the change in weather patterns will affect the agriculture industry. Not only have we seen a marked difference in the length of wet and dry seasons and when they occur during the year, but we’re noticing more extreme weather behavior in terms of flooding and drought. These abnormalities lead us to wonder what the long-term effects of increasing average temperatures will be. The answer is not easy to pin down as it depends on many factors, such as how much average temperatures rise and how much more forest cover is converted to other land uses.

Because so many people are interested in knowing how climate change will affect different places around the world, scientists have produced different computer-based models for predicting how possible scenarios could translate to local impacts. A recent study conducted by Cherrington, Kay, and Waight-Cho * utilized an array of these models to assess how much rainfall, runoff, and erosion we might see across Belize’s 16 watersheds by the year 2050, given different climate change conditions and deforestation rates.

Overall, the models indicated that climate change will result in decreased rainfall in Belize, particularly in the north. At the same time, the amount of runoff, water which flows over or through the soil rather than soaking into it, will increase. So by 2050 the country will be receiving less precipitation and less water will be infiltrating the soil to provide moisture for crops. Although the decrease in rainfall and increase in runoff are inevitable, the rate of erosion is highly dependent on the amount of forest cover.

Currently, 70.6% of the area in Belize’s watersheds is forested. If deforestation continues at the same rate, forest cover in these watersheds will be reduced to 54.6% by 2050. Alternatively, cutting the rate of deforestation in half results in 69.3% of this area being maintained as forest. How does deforestation impact erosion? The root systems of trees in forests hold the soil in place so that as runoff flows over the ground, it doesn’t take the topsoil with it. When the trees are cleared, there is nothing to hold the soil in place, and as the water washes over the earth, it carries the sediment to the river. Therefore, the less forest cover there is in an area, the more erosion occurs, and as the fertile top layer of soil is swept away, the land becomes less productive for agriculture and surrounding rivers and streams are impacted. Furthermore, the presence of forests across the world is a major factor that mitigates climate change, so clearing forest exacerbates the effects of climate change, leading to even drier conditions.

It is important to note that climate change is not occurring in a vacuum, and there are other dynamic factors that might interact with climate change to multiply the effects we experience. For instance, the national rate of population growth is currently 2.4%, and at this rate, the population of Belize will double in 20 to 25 years. In other words, as the water supply is decreasing, the demand will increase. This could cause a hike in water prices, especially considering the fact that the water suppliers will likely have to go to greater lengths to remove the increased sediment from the water due to higher rates of erosion.

What actions can the agriculture sector take to ensure a more stable future in the face of changing weather patterns? The use of agricultural methods that don’t require further clearing of forest, such as agroforestry and inga alley cropping, will be essential. These methods naturally provide nutrients for the soil and retain sediment to prevent erosion. Additionally, with the reduced availability of water, taking steps to improve efficiency of water use will help the sector adapt. The key is to look into the future and begin to modify agricultural practices now in order to prepare for and alleviate the coming changes. If we begin to make adjustments now, Belize can thrive in the face of climate change.

* Cherrington, E.A., Kay, E., and I. Waight-Cho (2014). Technical Report – Modelling the impacts of climate change and land use change on Belize’s water resources: potential effects on erosion and runoff.

Climate Change Impact on Agriculture

Adaptation measures to climate change and variability were the focus of a forum in February when the stakeholders of the agriculture sector and livestock producers met with representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forest, Fisheries, the Environment and Sustainable Development (MAFFESD); Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA); and National Climate Change Office (NCCO). The participants developed specific recommended adaptation measures for both direct effects (changes in rainfall and temperature) and indirect effects (changes in pests, diseases and soil fertility) on agriculture crops and livestock.

The measures recommended for excessive rainfall and flooding unclude:

  • Drainage infrastructure, systems and mechanisms
  • Well-designed and drained road infrastructure
  • Available rainfall forecasts
  • Relocation of animals and annual crops

The measures recommended for drought include:

  • Irrigation, including drip irrigation
  • Use of renewable energy sources
  • Watershed management
  • Water harvesting

The measures recommended for climate variability include:

  • Seasonal production
  • Timely, specific, and localized weather forecasts

The measures recommended for temperature increase include:

  • Selection of heat-tolerant crops, pasture varieties and livestock breeds with emphasis on indigenous genetic diversity
  • Irrigation to alleviate heat stress on plants
  • Silvopastoral systems
  • Heat alleviating infrastructure or appropriately ventilated housing designs for poultry, pigs, sheep and goats

Measures recommended for adapting to changes in climate and environment for aquaculture include:

  • Improved brood stock
  • Access to clean water sources
  • Adequate water storage
  • Use of renewable and alternative sources of energy
  • Information and technology transfer from expert sources
  • Improvement in regulatory services

The agriculture sector is in a good position to implement the proposed adaptation measures in terms of technical capacity, institutional and policy environment and stakeholder attitude.

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