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URUGUAY: Coming Together to Tackle Climate Change

MONTEVIDEO, Jan 8 2010 (IPS) - Fighting the front line battle against global warming, with the participation of all sectors of society, is the cornerstone of a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) pilot project in Uruguay that is drawing attention from the rest of the world.

The idea is to identify the most vulnerable areas and design mitigation and adaptation strategies, based not only on expert opinions, but particularly on the input of all the people involved, project coordinator Federico Ferla told IPS.

“Strategies will be developed through participatory working methods, unlike the few projects that have been carried out so far, mostly in industrialised countries, where in general teams of experts just hand over a report to be considered by the authorities,” he said.

“The process will be participative, with the involvement of relevant actors at the local level. Naturally experts and authorities will play a leading role, but so will representatives of the private sector, non-governmental organisations, universities, local representatives of international bodies, public enterprises and local communities,” he said.

The UNDP project is supported by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and implemented through the Support to Territorial Networks (ART) programme, an aid plan that links UNDP with local and national authorities.

Officially launched in September 2009, the present stage of the initiative involves the drawing up of adaptation and mitigation strategies by multi-sector working groups established in the southern provinces of Canelones, Montevideo and San José.

These three provinces, which include the metropolitan region of the capital city, “have great socioeconomic weight, with about two million people (in a country with a population of 3.3 million) producing around two-thirds of GDP,” Ferla said.

This region is also responsible for most of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, he said, although the main greenhouse gas emitted by Uruguay is not CO2 but methane, from its large cattle herds. Local development which is low in carbon emissions is also a goal of the project.

The pilot project was presented at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit 2009, held in Los Angeles, California from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, and at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15) that met in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18.

The head of the provincial government of Canelones, Yamandú Orsi, said the project is taking concrete action against global warming while inter-government negotiators are still bickering.

“At a time when high-level agreements are very difficult to reach, as we have seen at Copenhagen, ground level alliances and exchanges can be made to work,” he told IPS.

“We have seen that, depending on the country, between 40 and 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated as a result of decisions taken at a sub-national level, involving investment, transport, travel and consumption habits.

“That means decisions about mitigation that can be taken (at this level) are highly effective,” said Pablo Mandeville, the UNDP permanent representative in Uruguay.

The three provinces selected represent a fairly broad spectrum of Uruguay’s main vulnerabilities to climate change.

They face risks from rising sea levels, for instance, which pose an important threat in coastal areas and wetlands.

“Social vulnerability is also a problem. The area includes most of the country’s informal urban settlements (shanty towns) which are home to over 150,000 people,” says Ferla.

“In addition, there is a concentration of fairly vulnerable small farmers, which means food insecurity. The range of risks is quite wide, so the project can work on several fronts,” he said.

Mandeville told IPS that the first step is to map the region’s vulnerabilities, and then to undertake prospective studies on the probable risks under extreme climate conditions, in order to decide on adaptation measures.

For example, one of the places identified as high risk with respect to the effects of global warming in the metropolitan region is the Santa Lucía river basin.

“There is a danger that this river might flood, overflow its banks and trigger natural disasters, and that multiple flooding could have a catastrophic effect, since the only pumping station for drinking water for the whole metropolitan region is in the Santa Lucía basin,” Mandeville said.

“A possible adaptation measure would be to build a second pumping station, in light of this risk. It might be redundant now, but it could ward off catastrophe in the future,” he said.

“What happened with Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 showed that sometimes a combination of factors can be totally devastating in a populated area. And the most vulnerable zones, worldwide, are urban areas,” he added.

The project awakened considerable interest in Copenhagen, and several African countries, particularly Algeria, Senegal and Uganda, as well as others in Europe and Latin America, said they planned to replicate it.

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