Saturday, March 5, 2011

El Salvador: Climate change 'number one issue'

El Salvador is "already" facing wild weather, the country's environment minister tells Al Jazeera.

Dahr Jamail 
Al Jazeera
02 Mar 2011

Levies have been breached by severe flooding from  storms linked to climate change
San Salvador - "We have a very clear position," El Salvador’s Minister of Environment, Herman Chavez, told Al Jazeera at his office in San Salvador, the capital.

"The President of El Salvador, last year on July 20th, in an extraordinary meeting of presidents that was convened here in San Salvador, launched the intervention process. We put Climate Change as the number one issue for the region."

The government of El Salvador's position, which mirrors that of other Central American countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras, is due to the fact that anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is impacting the planet more than ever, and scientists expect it to worsen.

In January, new figures provided by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that Earth’s global average surface temperature for 2010 tied 2005 for the hottest year on record. The two agencies' figures also showed that 2010 was the wettest year ever recorded.

Wild weather

2010 proved to be a model year for what the planet can expect as the result of climate change. Huge floods occurred in Pakistan, Australia, and California. A record-breaking heat wave in Russia, and the severe die-offs of coral reefs underscored the acceleration of the global trends in Climate Change.

Last year was also the 34th consecutive year that global temperatures have been above the 20th-century average, and nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 due to what scientists attribute to a 40 per cent increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.

"Climate change for us is not a hypothesis,” Minister Chavez added. "It is a very concrete reality that strikes us. The disasters we've been having are very clearly linked to climate change."

El Salvador, like other countries in the region, has been dramatically affected by severe weather events including extreme rain events and flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes that are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

New research

On February 16 two new studies published in the journal Nature confirmed the link between climate change and more extreme precipitation events.

Based on measurements taken from over 6,000 weather stations, results revealed that human-induced heating of the planet has already made rainfall more intense, which has led to more severe floods.

The studies suggest that the planet's climatic system may well be more sensitive to small temperature increases than was previously believed.

“Warmer air contains more moisture and leads to more extreme precipitation,” Francis Zwiers of the University of Victoria, one of the researchers, reported.

The studies show that extreme precipitation and flooding over the entire northern hemisphere has increased by seven percent between 1951 and 1999 as a result of anthropogenic global warming. That represents an increase more than twice the increase projected by climate modeling.

'We have a new type of phenomenon that we did not have before, intense and concentrated rainfall, and that is happening all over Central America," Minister Chavez said. "Therefore, what we are saying, whenever we can, that climate change is not something that will come far in the future. It is something that is occurring already, and is having significant impacts."

El Salvador Congressman Ramon Aristides Valencia agrees.

Congressman Ramon Aristides Valencia founded the Mangrove Association in El Salvador [Erika Blumenfeld/AJE]
 "We believe climate change is already a reality," Valencia told Al Jazeera while on a boat going to visit some of his constituents. "So what we are doing is we are working on a community level, working within grassroots organisations to help communities protect themselves, and build a movement from the bottom up."

Accomplishing this should not be a problem, as Valencia founded the Mangrove Association, and remained on the organisation’s board until 2009 when he became a congressman.

The Mangrove Association was formed in response to subsistence farmers and fishermen/women whose livelihoods depended on the viability of local ecosystems being threatened by climate change.

This group works to support a grassroots coalition of community groups called La Coordinadora, which today includes more than 100 communities. This community organizing has formed into a resilient social movement growing across El Salvador's central Pacific coast that has created both a new way of organising and viable alternatives for environmental sustainability.

Aligning for change

Congressman Valencia is also calling for all institutions of the government to incorporate their policies and laws towards addressing issues of adaptation to climate change so that government resources can be invested into the functions of adapting.

"Over the years the government had positioned itself with the stance of the United States, which denies the reality of Climate Change," Valencia added. "But now, we are trying to fix things ourselves and are aligning ourselves with the Group of 77."

The Group of 77 is the largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries in the United Nations.

The Group of 77, established in 1964 by seventy-seven developing countries, has now increased to 130 countries. According to their website, the group’s stance on climate change reads, "Climate change poses serious risks and challenges particularly to developing countries and, therefore, demands urgent global action and response."

Walberto Gallegos, a staff member at the Mangrove Association, voiced concerns his group has about Climate Change, which include how the effects are being exacerbated by decisions made by the Lempa River Hydro-electric Commission to hold too much water with their dam during times of drought, then doing massive water releases that cause flooding during storms.

"We are seeing both extremes of climate change here," Gallegos told Al Jazeera, "And the decisions taken by the Hydro-electric Commission are making the extreme weather events even worse for us."


Al Jazeera visited a levy that was breached during flooding last summer by flooding many residents believe was caused by exactly the phenomenon described by Gallegos – the Hydro-electric Commission guilty of not dealing accordingly with climate change caused extreme weather events.

Yael Falicov is the executive director of EcoViva, a non-profit that provides technical and financial support to community groups in this area of El Salvador.

"These communities already face the most extreme hurricanes and floods in all of El Salvador, events that are only getting worse as climate variability increases," Falicov told Al Jazeera. "What they need from government and international agencies is not aid or pity, but support to help them be organised and prepared for the worst."

Falicov's group has worked with La Coordinadora to help implement what is possibly the best emergency evacuation system in Central America. For 12 years running there have been no deaths from flooding in participating communities, in contrast with terrible losses in nearby areas.

Global threat

Herman Chavez,  Minister of Environment
Like El Salvador, the rest of the world is suffering climate catastrophes generated by climate change.

Scientists from the Climate Change Research Center announced recently that climate change has most likely been the cause of intensified monsoon rains that triggered the record flooding that caused the recent disaster in Australia's state of Queensland.

Matthew England of the Climate Change Research Center told reporters, “The waters off Australia are the warmest ever measured and those waters provide moisture to the atmosphere for the Queensland and northern Australia monsoon.”

Warmer atmospheric temperatures means increasing moisture in the air, and thus greater amounts in precipitation events.

For example, this winter in the United States has been marked by several massive storms. One storm in early February included heavy snow, ice, freezing rain and severe winds that battered roughly two-thirds of the entire country. One in three US citizens were affected by the storm that the National Weather Service described as "a winter storm of historic proportions".

The current string of harsh winters around much of the globe for the last decade is also attributed to climate change, according to scientists who published a report in December.

"Recent severe winters [in Europe] like last year’s or the one of 2005-2006 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it," Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and a physicist at the Potsdam Institute reported.

Climate skeptics who question the gravity of global warming or that humans are to blame for it, instead point to the severe winters as confirmation of their doubts.

This ignorance, counter scientists, mistakenly conflates the long-term patterns of climate with the short-term vagaries of weather, and ignores regional variation in climate change impacts.

Arctic temperatures are increasing at two to three times the global average and have caused 20 per cent of the region's floating ice cover to vanish over the last 30 years, allowing more of the sun's radiation to be absorbed by the ocean instead of being reflected back into space by the ice and snow. This process accelerates overall warming.

El Salvador’s Minister of Environment is all business when it comes to the kind of response necessary now in order to deal appropriately with climate change.

"We need to do something now, seriously, to adapt to climate change, because the only certainty we have is that it will get worse," Minister Chavez said, "We’re not negotiating about this getting better. We are negotiating how bad it is, how much worse it will be, and how are we are going to moderate this dynamic."

"The only certainty we have is that it will get worse."

Migration concerns

Chavez believes if serious commitments are not met regarding the reduction of carbon emissions, particularly in developed countries like the United States. "We might reach tipping points that might make, in many places, adaptation simply impossible," he says.

"We are also saying that in Central America, there is a very close linkage between climate change and security,” Chavez added. "If we do not address these problems, if we do not seriously put into action significant actions of adaptation, the losses, the diversion of resources simply to attend to emergencies, will become so large that these countries won’t have any resources to invest in health, education, and so on."

Minister Chavez believes that if governments, whether they be his, Egypt, Libya, or that of the United States, are not able to meet the demands of their citizens, "This will become a significant source of political and social instability in the region."

In late January Minister Chavez, along with the Minister's of Environment of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, met in Washington DC with officials from the Obama administration.

"We told them that if we get to this point, the next big wave of migrants into the United States will be climate change migrants,” Minister Chavez explained. "So it is in the interest of the United States, and of the region, that we really address this seriously."

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