GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AlertNet) – Guyana is pushing forward on protecting its rich inland forests as a source of income but is investing too little money in helping its low-lying coastal regions prepare for and adapt to climate change, national and international experts say.
A study published last year by researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada says that massive adaptation investment is needed if the South American nation is to stave off flooding and salt contamination of agricultural land as a result of rising seas and more frequent storms.
“The Guyana government clearly recognizes the country’s acute vulnerability to climate change – which has been accentuated by multiple recent flood events – and focuses on the need for vast infrastructural rehabilitation and enhancement as the main adaptation priority,” the authors noted.
Ninety percent of the country’s population and the majority of its important economic activities are located in coastal zones. But the researchers said they feared the government’s investment in adaptation was unlikely to keep pace with the challenge.
“While Guyana has emerged as a champion of climate change mitigation through averted deforestation, government investment in adaptation remains relatively small, and although a limited budget is one of the reasons for this, a number of other impediments complicate the issue,” the study said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, that rising seas threaten countries such as Guyana and Bangladesh that have extensive low-lying coasts.
The report warned that saltwater intrusion is likely to have a strong impact on freshwater resources, agriculture and forestry, fishing, health, biodiversity, settlements and infrastructure.
Guyana’s sea defences currently consist of walls, groynes (breakwaters), and piles of large boulders, or ripraps, which have not always worked to hold back the rising waters.
Last August, farmers in the West Berbice area suffered saltwater damage to their land when high tides caused sea water to flood over or break through the defences, affecting the planting of watermelons, rice, vegetables and other cash crops.
The Canadian study identifies a range of challenges for Guyana in addressing climate threats, including limited technical skills, low public awareness and problems prioritising longer-term concerns relative to other national priorities.
E. Lance Carberry, an economist and forest protection advocate who until late 2011 was a member of the parliament’s Natural Resources Committee, said the government’s low carbon development strategy has been insufficiently focused on adaptation to climate change. According to the former member of parliament, the plan concentrates almost entirely on winning compensation for maintaining forested areas under a REDD + (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) arrangement.
The lack of focus on adaptation could leave Georgetown, the country’s coastal capital, at risk, he said.
“There has been a lot of talk about shifting the capital inland to higher ground, but no studies have been undertaken,” Carberry said.
The government should also consider building alternative highways to the nation’s major airport as part of its climate adaptation and disaster preparedness efforts, he said. At present only one road leads from Georgetown to the inland airport.
Carberry also advocates dredging the mouths of rivers and canals along the coast to allow for greater and faster outflow of water to the Atlantic in times of flooding.
And he thinks the country’s breakwaters should be improved.
“It is evident that, with the greater intensity of wave action along our Atlantic coast, action should be taken to restore groynes (breakwaters) as part of our adaptation measures. But this is not being done,” he said.
In an interview, Guyana’s Minister of Works, Robeson Benn, acknowledged that long-term infrastructural changes will become necessary because of rising seas, and said the government is planning for these and considering the costs involved.
In particular, there are plans to raise the country’s sea walls by half a metre “over the next 40 years and beyond in response to the threat of sea level rise from global warming,” Benn said.
Government engineer Walter Willis, who has been supervising remedial work to the sea defences in Berbice, said exceptionally high tides last August reached 3.3 metres (11 feet) in height, allowing them to come over the top of the region’s existing coastal protections.
Worsening intrusions of sea water are a particular problem for farmers, who may find their land contaminated with salt, said Oudho Homenauth, head of the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute. Some crops like coconuts can withstand high levels of salinity, but many others cannot, he said.
“Tomatoes are very susceptible, as are those (crops) that have a lot of water in them. Leafy vegetables are also heavily affected by saltwater,” he said.
According to Homenauth, salt-contaminated soil can only be cultivable again if it is flooded with fresh water that washes out the salt. Although his agency has not researched the problem extensively, Homenauth said that studies have been done on varieties of rice that are able to withstand some level of salinity.
Johann Earle is a Guyana-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.