Foto II Sarstún

Climate Change and Smart Coasts in Mesoamerica

Fabio Cresto Aleína

The climate is changing, and this global phenomenon is affecting the whole world, but it is not affecting all regions equally. Unfortunately, in many instances the countries, which are the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions causing the anthropogenic climate change, are those in which climate change impacts are expected to be larger, or where the capability to adapt to such changes is rather low. This so-called climate injustice is particularly evident within the Mesoamerican Caribbean coast, a region which is especially vulnerable to climate-related threats such as sea level rise, increase in ocean acidification, and higher frequency of extreme weather events. Not only are local ecosystems under threat, but as this area supports lives and livelihoods of around two million people, also the way of life of many local communities will be radically affected by the aforementioned hazards.

So, what do these threats mean exactly, and what can we do to adapt to them? The main threat to the Mesoamerican Caribbean coast is the impending global sea level rise. Modern projections of state-of-the-art global climate models show that the sea level will likely increase by 40cm by 2050, and that it will keep increasing by more than 1m by 2100. Sea level rise is mainly a consequence of melting glaciers and ice caps and of the so-called thermal expansion of water due to the increase of the global temperatures – it is the same principle that causes the metal of the railroads to expand under the scorching sun. This dramatic change will irremediably affect the lives of millions of people in the area who depend on the coastal seas and lands for sustenance. At the same time, some ecosystems, which have always played a key role in protecting the coastlines, are disappearing under the combined pressure of climate change and human activities. Coral reef, for example, is a key ecosystem that helps to maintain the well-being of the whole coast, as it dissipates much of the force of the incoming waves, helping therefore to avoid inundations and coastal erosion. Increased water temperatures and ocean acidification are causing coral bleaching, making them vulnerable, prone to starvation and eventually death. Another important coastal ecosystem under pressure is the mangrove forest, which also protects the coasts against sea level rise, erosion, and from hazards like storm surges and tsunamis. With their complex and dense aerial root systems, they attenuate and dissipate the strength of high waves before they reach settlements situated besides these efficient natural barriers. To function properly, though, a mangrove forest must be wide and healthy, provided with sufficient sediments, unpolluted fresh water, and links to other ecosystems. All these conditions are often threatened by deforestation and unsustainable land use.

Sarstún River. Photo: Guillermo Gálvez

In this dramatic and unstable situation, the project “Smart Coasts” is working towards implementation of climate adaptation measures along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. The project is being implemented within marine protected areas and other key coastal development areas of the Mesoamerican Reef, including the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Yucatán (Mexico), protected areas along the Belizean coast, and the Punta Izopo National Park (Honduras). In Guatemala, the target area is the Área de Uso Múltiple of Río Sartún, in Livingston, Izabal. These sites were chosen both because of the particular vulnerability of the local population towards the impacts of climate change, and because of their importance in biodiversity conservation. The main objective of Smart Coasts is the identification and the implementation of “climate-smart” adaptation measures to help the local ecosystems and the local population in the fight against climate change and its impacts.

Smart Coasts is a WWF project supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Ministry for the Environment, and in Guatemala it is supported by the efforts of the Foundation for the Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAGA), and of the National Forestry Institute (INAB). These organisations are in turn led by the WWF Mesoamerica. Moreover, local authorities such as the Livingston municipality, and the Community Development Councils are being involved in the planning and in the implementation of the project from its onset. The work of all these institutions will be supported by a newly formed Regional Working Group, formed by representatives from the four participating countries, which will provide expert knowledge in the areas of climate change, ecosystem-based adaptation, and policy interventions, to foster effective project impact.

During a workshop on Climate Change. Photo: Pilar Velásquez

Smart Coasts originated from a decades-long focus of WWF Mesoamerica on the Mesoamerican Reef, and from the successful collaboration among Stanford University, the WWF, and the Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute in Belize, a cooperation that led to the completion of the Belize Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan. Soon “the idea of applying those tools to the whole ecoregion arose”, remembers Pilar Velasquez Jofre, Technical Officer of WWF responsible in Guatemala for the Smart Coast Project. “The International Climate Initiative (IKI) launched a call for proposals that matched with our interest in the area, and therefore a proposal was submitted. It took almost three years to negotiate the final terms with IKI, before starting the implementation in August 2018.”  The idea behind the project is to combine the multiple efforts of local institutions and experts with the output of computer models developed by scientists from Stanford, and in turn to establish a continuous dialogue with the local communities on climate adaptation measures. The models will simulate different scenarios of ecosystem-based adaptation options that will be evaluated with ecological risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses. This process will give the decision-makers at the local and at the national level more science-based tools to identify which strategies are best suited to be applied in the different protected areas and in other coastal management zones. The computer models will be constantly evaluated against locally collected data and the input of experts who have been working with these complex ecosystems for years. The project in fact concretely aims to “strengthen capacities in coastal communities and government institutions to integrate climate change scenarios and adaptation options, through a participatory decision-making process, into relevant policy on a local and national level” continues Pilar Velasquez Jofre. “We are taking the science to the communities to discuss it and analyze it with them. Such a bottom-up approach will increase the feasibility and the success of the chosen adaptation options”.

In Guatemala, Smart Coasts continued in January 2019 with two workshops, one in the Río Sarstún area and one in Guatemala City, aimed to inform the local communities, the participating governmental institutions, and the partner NGOs on the second modelling results from Stanford University, in order to collect feedback on model evaluation and on the proposed adaptation measures. The next milestone will already be met this coming April, when the newest modelling results will be again locally evaluated, in order to finally choose the most feasible adaptation option(s) for Sarstún and start planning its implementation. In the bleak scenario dominated by the dramatic impacts of climate change in the region, implementation of projects like Smart Coasts is urgently needed, if not to avoid this human-driven catastrophe, at least to adapt to its consequences.

During a workshop on Climate Change. Photo: Pilar Velásquez

Fabio Cresto Aleína is from Italy and is a climate scientist. He recently moved to San Juan La Laguna to collaborate with the WWF Guatemala on a climate change adaptation project as a scientific expert.

Cover photo: Guillermo Gálvez