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
The measures recommended for climate variability include:
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
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.
Challenges of and plans to mitigate climate change
Climate Change is an existential threat to the world and small countries like Belize are the most vulnerable to its effects. In order for Belize to effectively mitigate the effects of Climate Change every citizen and organization must do their part. Oceana Belize is doing its part by partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to keep the conversation open in Belize. On Wednesday, July 27, a panel of experts sat down with lovers of the environment at the Radisson for a conference themed “The Energy of Nature vs. the Nature of Energy”.
Belize’s top Climate Change authority, Carlos Fuller, made a presentation on the threats posed to Belize by Climate Change and the efforts being made by the region to cope. Special Guest Speaker was Peruvian marine scientist Dr. Patricia Majluf. She made a presentation on the anchoveta fishery in Peru and its overall importance to the ecosystem. She demonstrated how effective harvesting of a marine product can improve sustainability of the entire marine system. Anchovetas were being used primarily as fish feed but when this is done it limits the amount available for species that depend on them for food. By focusing on anchovetas more as a food source and not a source for fish feed, the population of anchovetas has increased which benefits the entire eco system.
This turnaround in Peru would not have been possible without sound scientific data. This is one of the things Hon. Omar Figueroa says Belize needs to effetcively mitigate Climate Change. Hon. Figueroa, Minister of State for the Environment, Sustainable Development, Protected Areas and Climate Change, spoke of the present challenges Belize faces as a result of Climate Change. He points to an increase in ocean acidification which he says is “threatening the very foundation of our coral reefs while an increase in sea surface temperatures is leading to more incidences of coral bleaching and coral mortality”. Figueroa also spoke of salt water intrusion into riverine habitat and increasing coastline and beach erosion as areas of great concern. He says, “Failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change will result in significant loss of lives as extreme weather events become more frequent,” and, “extensive damage to critical infrastructure such as road, telecommunications, property and other resources that are necessary for sustainable development.”
Figueroa spoke of several conventions Belize is a party to; such as the Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement. Government’s commitment to mitigating climate change led to the adoption of Belize’s first climate change policy in March of 2015, the National Climate Change Policy, Strategy and Action Plan. This policy was developed by the Belize National Climate Change Committee, established in 2010. The committee spent a year meeting with key stakeholders and incorporated all sectors of the economy; including, tourism, agriculture, water resource management, health and environment, in order to develop a comprehensive plan for climate change mitigation.
Figueroa said in order to effectively address climate change there are six things that needs to be done. One, we need to integrate climate change considerations into the national development plan. Two, we need to strenghten our institutions, including departments and universities to effectively deal with and manage the effects of climate change. Three, launch an effective public awareness campaign to educate and train as many Belizeans in order to build an informed citizenry. Four, build the research capability of local institutions so we can have quality scientific data. Five, challenge youths to pursue education in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Six, strenghten partnerships between local organizations and international agencies in order to effectively respond to challenges.
Other presenters at the conference included Carolyn Trench-Sandiford, President and Executive Director of Belize Association of Planners; Roberto Pott, Belize Coordinator of Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, and Ansel Dubon, Project Manager of Energy Resilience and Climate Adaptation Project (ERCAP) in the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities.