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CLIMATE CHANGE: Understanding Weather to Protect the Poor

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, Mar 23 2007 (IPS) - Climate phenomena like El Niño and global warming have a disproportionate effect on the poor. That is why meteorology has a crucial contribution to make in the fight against poverty, scientists say.

“Vulnerability is greatest where there is least infrastructure and the population is poorest,” Southern Pacific University Network (RUPSUR) expert Yesid Carvajal told IPS.

Many losses could be avoided if science were involved in decision-making, said Carvajal, who holds a doctorate in hydrology, and until 2006 was executive secretary of RUPSUR, based in the western Colombian city of Cali.

“Poor people are always the most vulnerable and most likely to suffer losses, both economic and in terms of human lives,” he said.

Scientists have made enormous efforts for 10 years to make “decision-makers aware that it is necessary and urgent for the issue of climate to be included in natural resource planning.” The cost ratio of dealing with the aftermath of a disaster and investing in research and infrastructure to reduce vulnerability is nine to one, according to RUPSUR.

The RUPSUR network of universities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela was founded in 1998.

In order to draw attention to the importance of climate, Mar. 23, World Meteorological Day, is dedicated to polar meteorology in recognition of International Polar Year (2007-2009).

According to RUPSUR experts, Latin America is highly vulnerable to “climate variability and change,” and to periodic phenomena like El Niño, which is just finishing its latest cycle.

Because of El Niño, from December to March Bolivia experienced a wave of extreme weather, including torrential rains, floods, overflowing rivers and hurricane force winds in the northeast, and drought, hailstorms and frosts in the west. More than 50 people died, and nearly 80,000 families were left homeless throughout the country. Damages also ocurred in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the warm phase of the cycle, and occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean cools in southeast Asia and warms close to the South American coast. The process has climate repercussions on a planetary scale.

The cold phase of ENSO, called La Niña, has been less closely studied. It has already started, and it usually lasts 12 months, according to Max Henríquez, deputy director of meteorology at Colombia’s state Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). Due to La Niña, more and stronger hurricanes than usual are expected in the Caribbean this season.

At this moment of transition between the two phases, the rains are returning to areas hit by drought, and are gradually letting up in the flooded parts.

In Colombia, for instance, more than 370 fires that razed over 40,000 hectares of forests, highlands and plains in 187 municipalities during the passage of El Niño have finally been put out, and flooded rivers are gradually returning to their normal rate of flow.

Carvajal warned that the onset of La Niña, “given Colombia’s topography, will mean landslides, floods and destruction of infrastructure. Preventive measures are essential to try to mitigate the effects of this cold phase.”

Over two million people in this country live in areas at high risk of flooding, alongside rivers that overflow their banks every so often. “This is related to the development model we have implemented in this country,” Henríquez told IPS, saying he could see no solution for it.

However, he acknowledged that some “very positive” progress has been made, such as the cooperation agreement between the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and IDEAM, signed after four years of lobbying. Henríquez said that this achievement was due to the fact that, “at long last,” the importance of scientific climate study is finally being recognised.

The warnings issued months ago by IDEAM about the impact of El Niño were generally accurate, although in November and December there were heavy rains instead of the forecast drought, which did in fact arrive from January until mid-March.

The agreement “will help create capabilities within IDEAM, to improve our response to the requirements of the agriculture and livestock sector,” he said.

Colombia’s overall losses due to El Niño, which should include factors like decreased river navigability, have yet to be calculated, but the Ministry of Agriculture estimated that the sharp frosts alone cost 55 million dollars.

Sudden sub-zero pre-dawn temperatures affecting nine out of the country’s 32 departments (provinces) withered 15,000 hectares of potatoes, flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, beans, maize and aromatic plants, as well as pasture for cattle.

In addition to the agreement, the state agreed to fund a three-year project that was proposed without success in 2006, under the terms of which Henríquez and his team hope to update IDEAM’s model for evaluating the effects of El Niño and studying ocean conditions in relation to climate.

They will be concentrating on the Caribbean Sea, in order to study the relationship between El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), a kind of seesaw in atmospheric pressure gradient (high in the subtropics, low in the polar regions), “which signals whether cold or warm water moves towards the northeast coast of the United States, or away from it,” Henríquez explained.

IDEAM had not previously included the NAO as a factor in its analyses of El Niño.

“We thought it didn’t have much effect on our climate, or at least it didn’t in the past. But this year we have observed a stronger effect. In any case, we must investigate and understand it,” he said.

The impact of the Southern Oscillation “falls disproportionately on developing countries, particularly on the poorest sectors of society, putting the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at risk, because it increases inequalities in health and in access to adequate nutrition, drinking water and other resources,” RUPSUR said.

The first of the eight MDGs, adopted by the United Nations member countries in 2000, is to halve the proportion of people suffering extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, from 1990 levels.

RUPSUR therefore devoted its fourth meeting, held in November, to the analysis of the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of El Niño, and to exploring trends and challenges related to the MDGs, in order to define actions to be taken.

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