Climate Change Adaptation and Population Dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean (Report)October 14, 2015 By Kathleen Mogelgaard
Global climate trends indicate that our planet will continue warming into the next century, leading to more extreme climate conditions. The Latin America and Caribbean region is vulnerable to some of the most challenging aspects of climate change – sea-level rise, changes in precipitation, glacial melting, spreading of disease, and extreme weather events.
Population trends – including population growth, urbanization, migration, fertility, and reproductive health – are highly dynamic in the region and influence society’s vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Building resilience to climate change through adaptation efforts is critical to continued economic development across Latin America and the Caribbean in climate-uncertain times.
From 2013 through 2015, the Wilson Center worked closely with USAID Missions in the region to explore climate change challenges and potential solutions through a series of seminars in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Jamaica, Peru, and Barbados. At the end of the series, several participants from these seminars gathered at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, to share perspectives and discuss the implications of their work and participation in the series for broader policy dialogues and adaptation practices.
A new policy brief from the Latin America Program shares key findings and lessons from discussions throughout the series, highlighting several innovative approaches and projects and outlining future directions for effective and durable adaptation efforts.
Regional Climate Change Impacts and Vulnerabilities
The Latin America and Caribbean region has experienced significant changes in the last decade: economic growth, rapid urbanization, and declines in poverty and inequality. At the same time, rising global temperatures and the impacts of climate change have also made their mark across the region. On the whole, the capacity among the peoples of the region to adapt to climate change has grown, though such growth is uneven and the need to increase adaptive capacity and resilience remains high.
Extreme weather presents one of the most pressing challenges.Declines in reef ecosystems are likely to negatively impact economic growth and livelihoods
More frequent and intense rainfall has resulted in an increase in flash floods and landslides, which themselves are intensified by deforestation in the region. Coastal areas are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise, which when combined with an increase in the intensity of cyclones, has contributed to flooding, damage to infrastructure and agricultural resources, and threats to human health and well-being. Among the small islands of the Caribbean, current and future climate-related risks include sea-level rise, cyclones, increasing air and sea surface temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns.
Sea-level rise, in particular, presents severe flood and erosion risks for low-lying coastal areas. Saltwater intrusion is expected to compromise groundwater resources, and an increase in ocean temperature will result in increased coral bleaching and reef degradation. For island communities that are dependent on coral reef ecosystems for coastal protection, subsistence fishing, and tourism, such impacts on reef ecosystems are likely to negatively impact economic growth and livelihoods.
Changes in streamflow and water availability are expected to continue throughout the region. Glacial retreat in the Andes affects seasonal distribution of water, and the risk of water supply shortages will grow due to reduction in precipitation and increases in evapotranspiration in semi-arid regions. Such changes in water supply will continue to affect cities, hydropower generation, and agriculture. Drought and glacial melt cause shifts seasonal water supply, resulting in challenges of reliable water access for many populations. In addition, flooding and extreme weather events can overwhelm safe sanitation systems, leading to decreases in water quality, particularly in urban and coastal areas.
Agriculture and Food Security
With increasing temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, agricultural productivity in the region faces serious threats – though the magnitude of those impacts is expected to vary throughout the region. The hardest-hit areas are likely to be Central America, northeast Brazil, and parts of the Andean region, where decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature could limit agricultural productivity and contribute to food insecurity, particularly among the poorest populations.
A changing climate is associated with shifts in the incidence of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and insect- and water-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and diarrheal disease. Vulnerability to the health impacts of climate change varies across regions, ages, gender, and socioeconomic status, and is increasing in large cities. Given the region’s population growth rates and urbanization trends, and existing vulnerabilities in health, water, sanitation, nutrition, and pollution, the impacts of climate change are expected to exacerbate these challenges.
Barbados, for example, currently has the highest rate of dengue in the Americas. While efforts have been made to improve the reliability of water supply through rainwater storage, the risk of dengue has increased due to improperly stored water, highlighting the need for comprehensive, cross-sectoral strategies to adapt to the multiple impacts of climate change.
Population Growth and Urbanization
The Latin America and the Caribbean region has experienced significant population growth and urbanization over the past several decades, and these are trends that are likely to continue into the future. The region is already highly urbanized with 80 percent of the population living in cities, and that proportion is expected to grow to 87 percent by 2050.80% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean live in cities
These trends have significant implications for vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Rapid population growth exacerbates climate change vulnerability and exposes greater numbers of people to climate risk. Greater numbers and concentrations of people will require reliable access to resources such as water, sanitation, infrastructure, and energy – resources that are already over-taxed and/or vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Understanding such demographic trends is critical for forecasting climate risks and responses, and for designing strategies to adapt.
Understanding the social and economic trends underlying population dynamics can also be an important part of crafting effective adaptation strategies. Rural to urban migration, for example, can be an adaptive response to climate risks and vulnerabilities in rural areas, and understanding such drivers can help to strengthen long-term planning for adaptation.
Likewise, rapid population growth in many areas is driven by high fertility that results from women’s lack of access to adequate reproductive health and family planning services in the context of poor overall health service delivery. Adaptation plans that address needs for such services can have the added benefit of contributing to women’s empowerment and the health of women and children, thereby also strengthening household adaptive capacity.
While the region has experienced sustained economic growth over the last decade, poverty rates in many countries remain high. The Human Development Index varies greatly between countries, from Chile with the highest value (41st in world) to Haiti with the lowest value in 2013 (168th).
Economic inequality, both among and within countries, relates to inequality in access to water, sanitation, and adequate housing, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized groups, including indigenous people, Afro-descendants, children, and women living in poverty. Furthermore, such marginalization can mean reduced access to consultative and decision-making processes, limiting adaptive capacity and increasing exposure to climate risk.
The good news is that across Latin America and the Caribbean, governments, civil society, and the private sector are responding to these climate change risks and vulnerabilities and building the capacity to adapt. For more on projects from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico, and Jamaica, download the full report from the Wilson Center.
Adapted from “Climate Change Adaptation and Population Dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Kathleen Mogelgaard is a writer and analyst on population and the environment, and a consultant for the Latin American Program.
Sources: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, PAI, UN Development Program.
Photo Credit: Rio de Janeiro, courtesy of flickr user mariusz kluzniak.