Climate change in Guatemala is a problem which is already affecting the country, from increased rainfall during hurricane season to longer and more severe droughts.
As farmers count the cost of lost crops and young people increasingly migrate away from rural areas in search of work and better living conditions, the country faces questions about how to cope now and in the future
Guatemala is vulnerable
Guatemala is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to the effects of climate change. The country’s geographical location and its mountainous landscape mean it is prone to sever damage from hurricanes, floods and landslides.
Poverty is a major problem for Guatemala when it comes to coping with severe weather events and long-term climate change. Nearly half the country is poor, and this problem is even worse in rural areas, which are also more exposed to climate change.
Low quality infrastructure is another serious problem, so the roads, electricity, water and communications systems exposed to damage from flooding, erosion and high winds.
A primer on Guatemala’s climate
Guatemala’s climate is mainly warm and tropical, but it varies depending on the geography, from the cool highlands to humid rainforests and even dry scrub areas in the east.
Unlike more temperate climates, Guatemala has just two distinct seasons: a dry season from November to April, and a wet season from May to October. The only exception to this is a short dry period during the wet season called the canicular.
The country is vulnerable to hurricanes on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts between May and November. In May, 2010 Hurricane Agatha coincided with the eruption of the Pacaya volcano, and the resulting floods, landslides and building collapses killed around 100 people in Guatemala.
Poverty exacerbates climate change’s impacts
The major problem of poverty underpins so many of the risks of climate change in Guatemala, as it affects the durability of the population.
Poorer people are already more likely to suffer from malnutrition or lack access to good-quality health care, and their health is even more at risk if crops fail or when major weather events damage homes and water supplies.
The most serious impact of climate change in Guatemala is likely to be water shortages, making it difficult to irrigate crops.
Around 95 percent of surface water in Guatemala is estimated to be contaminated, which means farmers rely heavily on rainfall or pumped water to maintain their crops. The country also lacks expertise in maintaining its water supply infrastructure.
Recent fluctuations in the traditional patterns of rainfall have caused major problems for farmers, most of whom lack the resources or knowledge to build effective rainwater reservoirs.
Guatemala faces regular problems from hurricanes in both the eastern Pacific and from the Atlantic. Research has found that these storms have been getting stronger and leading to more rainfall, and this is a major issue for Guatemala.
Such severe weather events cause major damage and loss of life, but also lead to longer-term problems as communities are disrupted and livelihoods destroyed. This includes damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure, as well as a drop in tourist numbers.
In 2005, Hurricane Stan killed more 650 people and destroyed around 30,000 homes through a combination of floods and landslides. Although the government sent the military to help and authorised emergency funding, survivors were still living in rudimentary housing years later.
Climate change emigration
The effects of droughts caused by climate change are already causing major problems for rural areas, with many people choosing to migrate to cities or even out of Guatemala entirely.
Many of these are heading northwards to the United States, which has recorded a sharp increase in the number of Guatemalans crossing the border since 2014.
This causes a major problem because migrants cannot claim asylum based on environmental disasters caused by climate change. Many of those migrating are young, which removes some of the most productive workers from the Guatemalan economy.
Action on climate change in Guatemala
Guatemala does have a number of projects underway to adapt to the effects of climate change.
The German-funded Rural Development and Adaptation to Climate Change project, which began in 2013, works with the public and private sector to improve environmental management and adaptation to climate change.
It launched pilot schemes were launched in El Progreso and Baja Verapaz provinces to promote the efficient local use of natural resources. This included creating protection against soil erosion in agriculture and setting up rainwater collection systems.
Guatemala has also joined the V20 group of developing nations, which formed in 2015 to find ways to finance the cost of measures to combat climate change.
Worries for the future
Climate change in Guatemala will essentially be a problem of water, both from severe storms and droughts.
The rainfall from hurricanes is likely to cause more deadly floods and landslides, but the most dangerous long-term trend is for increasingly long dry periods threatening agriculture and drinking supplies.
Climate models developed by various organizations show that Guatemala, like the rest of Central America, will experience a gradual decrease in rainfall. This could mean up to 27% less rain by 2100.
Guatemala is a beautiful country, but the threat of climate change is already causing problems and these are likely to increase as global temperatures climb and water becomes a rare commodity for many Guatemalans.
About Jürg Widmer Probst
Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.