El Salvador stresses adaptation to keep its head above water

By Adam Kotin

When devastating floods hit El Salvador in October 2011, 40% of the country’s crops were wiped out. Agricultural Minister José Guillermo López Suárez was forced to import the nation’s signature kidney beans all the way from China.

But sadly, this wasn’t a new experience for the fast-developing Central American nation. At a COP17 panel presentation, El Salvadoran Minister of the Environment Herman Rosa Chávez discussed the slew of extreme weather events his country has endured over the last several years.

For El Salvador, severe climate-related losses have almost become an annual rite.

When his country talks about climate adaptation now, Chávez said, it’s considering the next rainy season, not some distant future. Workers at the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources have developed an increased sense of urgency as they attempt to confront the severe climate risks facing their country.

As the climate change talks press on here in Durban, the debate over how best to help developing countries deal with extreme climate threats plods on interminably.

Delegates constantly complain about the lack of attention paid to adaptation issues. Developing country representatives, in particular, believe adaptation should receive balanced treatment alongside mitigation actions in the negotiating texts. The talks continue to sputter along, however, and efforts such as the creation of an Adaptation Committee and an Adaptation Framework appear unlikely to meet the expectations of highly vulnerable developing countries.

Progress on adaptation funding, through either the Adaptation Fund or the stalled Green Climate Fund, would be a win for countries like El Salvador that already have plans in place and ready to go.

“We have very good plans—agreeing [on them] is not the issue…The issue is funding,” said Minister Chávez.

Still, despite a lack of resources, El Salvador presses on with its adaptation agenda. It has no other choice.

With work on the National Climate Change Strategy now underway, featuring a specific focus on agriculture and water issues, the country is making an effort to tie reconstruction efforts into long-term adaptation. One way to do this is to understand ecosystem health as vital to the success—or failure—of critical infrastructure.

Minister Chávez repeatedly emphasized that “green infrastructure is great infrastructure”.

As an example, he spoke of a bridge that was repeatedly wiped out by heavy storm surges on a river. Rather than just rebuilding the bridge in strengthened form, the government has opted to undertake a watershed restoration project alongside the rebuild, hoping to reduce future surge strength through healthy ecosystem management.

“You cannot climate-proof a bridge—you have to climate proof the entire watershed,” he said.

We could all learn a lesson from that one.

Creative as well is the synergy between El Salvador’s mitigation and adaptation agendas. In addition to joining reconstruction with adaptation, El Salvador is pushing the concept of “adaptation-based mitigation” through its REDD+ program. Citing agroforestry as “our big bet,” the Minister detailed the adaptive benefits of integrating tree cover with crops and livestock. Rather than starting with an emphasis on mitigation, officials have built towards carbon reductions while rooting projects in their ongoing efforts to improve climate resilience. It’s a clear ‘double-win’.

As one of the top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change, and one of three in Central America alone, El Salvador has a long way to go in shielding its economy and its people from increasing climate risks. But with such an innovative, holistic approach to adaptation, there’s hope the nation will manage to keep its head above water until, at long last, the world delivers the funds so sorely required.


Adam Kotin is a Master’s student in Environmental Studies at Brown University. He is blogging from the COP17 in Durban.


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