LatAm should rethink its development strategy to address climate change

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

So far this year, over 400 people in Latin America have died and billions of dollars in damage has been caused due to extreme weather phenomena associated with climate change.

In March, Peru was hit with heavy rains that left over 100 dead killed and around 180,000 people homeless, causing damage that will cost at least US$9bn to repair. In April, two deadly landslides killed nearly 350 people at Colombia, and Argentina and Chile have also had to deal with water cuts and severe flooding in recent weeks.

Now, with the governments in the region outlining plans to prevent future tragedies, BNamericas spoke with the conservation manager for non-profit organization The Nature Conservancy in Chile, Maryann Ramirez, about the adaptation strategy that Latin America must formulate in the face of climate change-associated threats.

BNamericas: What are the main lessons that can be learned from the natural disasters that have hit Latin America in the last few weeks in Peru, Colombia, Argentina, etc?

Ramirez: We need to move forward quickly with an agenda to adapt to climate change that allows the incorporation of 'green infrastructure' (wetlands, vegetation and other natural elements) as part of the solution to the increase in the extreme weather events that climate change will bring. We need to help nature to help us face the new global context, in which floods, fires and landslides will happen more frequently.

In the case of Santiago, Chile for example, we've found that wetlands in the high Andes allow sediments levels to be decreased and water flow to be regulated. In light of the retreat of the glaciers due to higher temperatures, it could be sensible to invest in the conservation of the wetlands, so that they can help us deal with events such as landslides, like the ones that recently hit the capital and which resulted in water cuts for nearly all seven million residents of Santiago.

BNamericas: How can Latin American governments coordinate with communities in order to prevent losses due to floods or landslides?

Ramírez: Governments have an important role to play in terms of prevention, particularly through the environmental education of the population. Risk analyses must be done for the infrastructure and the public. This allows us to better plan our investments.

In addition, we have to learn about climate change, how it can affect our cities and what actions we need to take in order to adapt to this new scenario, which has to be a priority to prevent future disasters. But it's also important how we plan growth of cities.

BNamericas: Do illegal mining and deforestation activities have a role in flooding?

Ramírez: They aren't activities that are driving us to face these situations in particular, but a lack of planning of our development. Illegal activities have an impact on nature, but so does a view of development that doesn't take into account all the impacts on the landscape. We have to carry out large-scale planning in order to understand what spaces are priorities for conservation, which ones can be changed and in what ways, so as to allow nature and the services it provides us, such as clean water and air, carbon sequestration, and habitats for biodiversity, can continue benefitting us.

BNamericas: Can the private sector cooperate with disaster prevention efforts?

Ramirez: The key here is adaptation, and it's necessary to take every action to achieve it. But prevention is for exceptional situations, and climate change and the extreme events associated with it aren't exceptional situations. So the scenario has changed and prevention isn't enough, it's essential to to adapt to this new context and to do that we need to change the way in which we produce our food, the water that supplies our cities and industries, and also the infrastructure that gives us energy and connects us.  

BNamericas: Is it possible for Latin American governments to carry out a coordinated effort in this regard, given the different needs of each country? 

Ramírez: Sharing experiences is fundamental. In this regard The Nature Conservancy has created an initiative all over Latin America that allows cooperation between the different actors in a specific water basin to promote the conservation of nature and our water sources. This is the Water Funds. These are independent organizations that receive both public and private contributions to invest in activities such as restoration of riverside forest and vegetation and sustainable productive practices, among others, with the aim of improving water quality and availability.

About Maryann Ramírez

Maryann Anttonieta Ramirez Calisto is a civil biochemical engineer with 12 years of experience in environmental and water conservation in Chile. Before joining The Nature Conservancy in 2012, she worked as a environment technical executive at Chile's state development agency Corfo and as water certification chief at Fundación Chile.

About the company

Founded in 1946 under the name Ecologists Union, and later rebranded as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1950, TNC is a charitable environmental organization, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, with a focus on the conservation of lands, water and cities. With one million members worldwide in 30 countries, it  was ranked 19th in Forbes' 100 largest US charities in 2016, with US$946mn in revenue.