ISLANDS:

From drought to hurricanes, Grenada tackles climate change with German help

ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada -- After a sudden thunderstorm this fall, Paul Valdon sat in a line of cars for 45 minutes near a bridge over a river because of gushing water.

People got out of their vehicles and shouted in frustration as the river engulfed the concrete structure, preventing them from crossing the waterway in the northeast part of the island. His friend in a nearby car tried to find an alternative way through the mountains, but got stuck again when a landslide blocked that road, as well. Valdon missed an important work meeting because of the flood.

"It was so frustrating. This happens at this river several times a year," said Valdon, a project coordinator at SPECTO, an environmental advocacy group.

Valdon's group is planning to fortify the riverbank with boulders and clear a buildup of sediment and debris, which is contributing to the frequent flooding. It also is planning workshops to change the practices of local communities and farmers, who routinely toss logs and other matter into the river, causing it to become elevated beyond normal levels.

It is one of several initiatives funded by the Integrated Climate Change Adaptation Strategies (ICCAS) program -- a three-year, €5 million ($6.84 million) initiative through 2016 funded by the German government to address Grenada's climate threats from droughts to hurricanes.

The ICCAS program is not the first climate change project in this 133-square-mile country by any stretch. But it is unique for being Grenada-specific rather than a blip on a broader regional effort and for considering multiple topics across government agencies, said Dieter Rothenberger, head of program at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and leader of the ICCAS work.

What has been missing in the country at times is tangible results on the ground, so the team is developing a series of projects that will have permanent effects, said Rothenberger, who is working on a daily basis with the Grenada Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment.

That level of government cooperation allows for much more detailed attention than typical regional projects, where a team might fly in for a few days and move on to another Caribbean island. Grenada was selected because it has played an active role in international climate negotiations, he said at a ministry interview here.

Reducing pollution to manage drought

Because of its broad scope, the project also highlights the country's and broader region's distinct climate challenges with geography, precipitation, erosion and infrastructure.

Heavy rainfall, for example, quickly can become a water quality problem here because of the island's size. It's not unusual for businesses like car repair shops to dump oil or contaminants into waterways, Rothenberger said.

"If you drop something on the ground in the middle of the island and there's a rain coming, in less than 45 minutes, it's in the sea," said Rothenberger.

Because of this challenge, the German team is hoping to promote more sustainable farming to reduce pesticides, which can run off into the water supply. The plans are not finalized, but they likely will include meetings encouraging farmers to diversify their crops and plant them in distinct patterns and combinations that increase yields, reduce water intake and repel pests.

Reduced pesticide use and education campaigns to slow dumping into waterways could further help the country cope with drought by reducing the strain on water wells.

"Even if you have a well that is technically reliable, if the water that comes in is polluted, then you can't use it," said Rothenberger.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the eastern Caribbean could experience a reduction in annual rainfall with temperature rise by the end of the century. Barbados and Grenada are two of the nations at highest drought risk, partially because they don't have the mountains and volcano topography capturing incoming moisture from the Atlantic like some other Caribbean islands, said Cedric Van Meerbeeck, a climatologist at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology. The dryness increases the risk of saltwater intrusion into existing aquifers and increases the pressure on the country's economic lifeblood, tourism.

"As tourism is a water-intensive economic sector, economic growth depending on expansion in the tourism sector puts the local water availability at risk of rapid depletion. This is particularly so given that the main tourist season coincides with the Caribbean dry season," said Van Meerbeeck.

Rothenburger said the strain on water wells is particularly high in the southeastern part of the island, which is dependent on groundwater. The dozen or so wells supplying the region cannot easily or cheaply be connected to the rest of the country's water network.

There, the ICCAS group plans to secure and rehabilitate the wells and also identify sustainable levels of water withdrawal, to minimize the risk of saltwater contamination. Because of the drought risk, ICCAS also is identifying ways to optimize water storage systems like rainwater harvesting in vulnerable communities, said Eva Wuttge, a technical adviser on the ICCAS project.

Government coordination an issue

Brainstorming about climate change in Grenada often stirs up memories of 2004's Hurricane Ivan, which caused damages double the country's gross domestic product and knocked out power and critical water supplies.

According to a 2012 U.N. analysis, it took up to one month to restore 95 percent of the pre-hurricane water supply, creating a public health threat.

To prevent a repeat of that scenario, the Germans are working with the ministry on a first-ever nationwide water mapping project identifying small creeks and springs otherwise not on the radar of the water authority. They are using global positioning equipment to locate small water supplies that may be hidden in forests and elsewhere.

Communities "might know about the small water supply closest to them. But even just a few hundred meters out, they might not know about that one," said Rothenberger. With the maps, regions eventually could be supplied with water purifying kits to be used with the newly discovered water sources after a disaster.

Yet an obstacle with Grenada and climate change is that there is not always coordination between various government ministries and groups on the ground, preventing people from being aware of each other's projects, said Tyrone Buckmire, secretary and executive officer at the Grenada Fund for Conservation, which has restored mangroves around the island. There isn't a central coordinating entity that would allow everyone to "piggyback" off each other's activities, he said.

He is not part of the German project and said he hoped the scope and intentions of it will be outlined more clearly for groups like his that have been working on the ground for years. Other environmentalists have been sharply critical of the government -- both past and present -- for encouraging practices like sand mining and mangrove destruction that can undermine climate resilience.

To facilitate communication, ICCAS is helping to revitalize a national climate change committee, according to Aria St. Louis, head of the environmental unit in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. It will consist of government officials, but will also work with groups and the private sector.

Seeking salvation in tourism?

The nongovernmental organization community serves as an important watchdog in Grenada, and the government wants to benefit from its suggestions, she said.

Wuttge added that the committee could provide a forum to educate government officials about climate risks.

"We don't want to change the whole way they work," said Wuttge about the Grenada government. The goal is to tweak activities already in the planning stages and add "teeth" to existing rules so there would be greater consideration of climate change for activities like construction projects.

This means that Wuttge and Rothenberger's team are spending hours combing through government documents to see whether they incorporate climate change, and if they do, whether a given ministry outlines potential solutions. This could lead to changes with infrastructure planning, so that roads or marinas are built a little higher or in a different location.

But it also can be as simple as encouraging the tourism industry in official documents to broaden its focus. It's a critical time for that, as the country is currently establishing a tourism authority, with a chief goal of giving the country a distinct brand.

"If beaches are starting to erode, how do you sell the Grenada tourism product? Maybe you should start also looking more at the interior. Start marketing the hiking trails more," Wuttge said.

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