A Proposal for Climate Change Adaptation at the Local Level in Costa Rica

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A municipal inter-agency climate change adaptation plan, based on a model established in Costa Rica.

By Sergio A. Molina

Professor and Researcher, National University of Costa Rica (UNA), and University of Costa Rica (UCR)

With collaboration from Vanessa Valerio, Sonia Arguedas, Wilberth Jimenez, and MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn, all from the National University of Costa Rica (UNA)

The aim of our proposal is to create a model for implementing a participatory strategy of adaptation to climate change at the municipal level. We believe in the power of municipalities to make meaningful impact on the climate change front, and this idea was highly recognized by the judges and members of the Climate CoLab community, an MIT initiative for global collaboration on climate change. While our winning project on the Adaptation to Climate Change contest is focused on one municipality in Costa Rica, our intent is for this to serve as a model strategy that can be replicated around the country and in Central America. Despite the important efforts that are made at the international and national levels through policies, programs, and projects for vulnerability reduction and adaptation to the effects of climate change, we believe that each of these efforts will positively impact those in need only if they are executed effectively at the local level. Our proposed approach is fundamental for the integration of initiatives that would otherwise leave actions uncovered, resulting in a slower, less effective, and more expensive adaptation process.

Although in the past decade Costa Rica has chosen a process of decentralized governance, municipalities still suffer from multiple deficiencies and limitations given the assigned responsibilities. Furthermore, municipalities, including our initial chosen case, Santa Barbara of Heredia, with a population of over 35,000 inhabitants, often suffer from pollution, rapid and disorganized urbanization, and a variety of productive pressures, putting significant stress on the remaining forest ecosystems and the hydrological network. In addition to these anthropogenic pressures, there are also those created by climate, climate variability, and climate change. This will put significant challenges on our biodiversity and production systems. Unfortunately, this scenario will revert significant efforts achieved over the last three decades in terms of development and poverty alleviation.

More predominant hydrometeorological events in Central America put at risk production systems including farming and ranching. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

More predominant hydrometeorological events in Central America put at risk production systems including farming and ranching. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

Costa Rica, along with the rest of Central America, has been identified as a climate change hotspot in the tropics (Giorgi 2006, Baettig et al. 2007). According to climate models, the Central Valley of Costa Rica, where the county of Santa Barbara is located, will suffer a significant temperature increase, up to 4.05 degrees centigrade, and a decrease in precipitation of 16 percent during the last decade of the 21st century compared to the period 1961-1990 (IMN 2012). Although these regional models offer important information, vulnerability differs substantially at the county level because it is directly related to the exposure to the threats, the degree of local resilience, and the adaptability capacity of each county. It is estimated that more than 85 percent of the Costa Rican economy is vulnerable to risks mostly related to climate change (UNISDR and CEPREDENAC 2014).

Therefore it is urgent to develop and implement local participatory strategies for adaptation to climate variability and change. The final goal is to manage local risks by adjusting the natural and human systems in order to create greater resilience. This adaptive capacity of the population depends on the proper management of the countyå«s resources (e.g., social, economic, educational, political, technological) requiring local inter-agency participation with an articulated agenda between national and local initiatives.

Through this project we expect to have an inter-institutional commission formed, organized, trained, and empowered for decision-making and taking action to make this local territory more resilient to the effects of climate variability and change.åÊ Beside a concerted climate strategy, we expect to create risk management plans at the district level and a technological application for an early warning system. The following section explains the proposed methodological approach in detail.

Methodological Approach

We focus our proposal on agriculture and water resource actors given their key role in the local dynamics of production and their high level of exposure to climate risks. Furthermore, both sectors are intrinsically connected, where water use (e.g., drinking and irrigation) and water pollution (e.g., agrochemicals, soil sedimentation) are urgent aspects to address under new climate regimes. On one side agricultural practices significantly influence water quality and quantity, and on the other side, farmers are dependent on water for their activities.

During the process we intend to develop the capacity of stakeholders for local governance and agricultural and water management through education and training in order to empower them for decision-making, increasing climate change resilience.

Thus, our approach is divided into three main steps, with several actions taking place simultaneously.

STEP I: Creation of a participatory and concerted municipal climate change strategy

A. Mapping the Current Situation

Our aim here is to understand the current situation in the municipal territory. This includes an assessment of socioeconomic, political, and environmental characteristics, including key actors to create a baseline for analysis.

B. Organizing an inter-institutional commission

A municipal climate change strategy will be developed, executed and monitored by an inter-institutional commission. Members of this commission will function as representatives from the multiple sectors, districts, and businesses within the municipal territory.

STEP II: Development of risk management plans at the district level through a multi-stakeholder approach

A. Assessing risks and vulnerabilities

Maps of risk perception will be made with projections and scenarios considering future national and local climate scenarios. Through this process, risk management plans for each of the districts will be developed in a participatory form considering the views and perceptions from organized groups, institutions, private sector, local development associations, producer associations, and other key actors at the district level.

B. Early warning system

With the aim to prevent or manage emergencies caused by climate related events, we intend to make accessible a system/application for early warnings taking into account the current resilience and potential climate change risks of each district.

STEP III: Implementing in the local context specific strategies and techniques for agricultural farmers and water suppliers

A. Specific practices/techniques to implement with farmers

In the agricultural sector we expect to implement technologies and practices within the local context that are aligned with agroecological principles aimed at making the biological, socio-cultural, and economic systems more resilient. Among these practices are: use of traditional knowledge, organic fertilizers and biological pest control, establishment of local seed banks and greenhouses, rotating crops and multi-cropping, agroforestry production, composting, efficient irrigation, water reservoirs, biodigestors and constructed wetlands.

Greenhouses are required for the cultivation of family vegetables under protected environments due to excess rain. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

Greenhouses are required for the cultivation of family vegetables under protected environments due to excess rain. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

Small farmers are now transforming manure into cooking gas with the aid of biodigestors. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

Small farmers are now transforming manure into cooking gas with the aid of biodigestors. Image Credit: MarÌ_a JosÌ© AvellÌÁn

B. Specific practices/techniques to implement with water suppliers

Besides the work with farmers, working with water suppliers is imperative given the increasing demand for water and the challenging rain projections. Our goal with this target group is to implement a program to increase their operational capacities to deal with socio-economic and climate change related pressures.

Concluding Remarks

We recognize that the active participation of all these actors is fundamental for the development and execution of specific strategies. Since ours is a multi-disciplinary and experienced team of trusted experts from public universities in Costa Rica, we will facilitate a legitimate process, in close coordination with municipality officials, and a wide range of stakeholders from government, businesses, and local organizations. We currently estimate a total cost of $500,000 (U.S.) for the implementation of the project over a three-year period. Half of this amount could be a counterpart funding from the National University of Costa Rica (most salaries, equipment, labs), and the Municipality of Santa Barbara; however, we are looking at this point for some financial support as seed money to start this feasible and urgent project. Financial support will be used to map the current situation, aided by interviews, surveys, and on-site measurements, and move forward into the training and empowering of the local commission on climate change, which entails developing educational materials, and organizing focus groups and workshops.

About the Author

Dr. Sergio A. Molina is a forest engineer, natural resources economist, and professor at the National University of Costa Rica (UNA) and the University of Costa Rica (UCR). His research focuses on the intersection between human dimensions and natural sciences for resource management and conservation, with particular interest on climate change, forest management, and community development.


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UNISDR [The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)] and CEPREDENAC [Centro de CoordinaciÌ_n para la PrevenciÌ_n de los Desastres Naturales en AmÌ©ricaCentral]. 2014. Informe Regional del Estado de la Vulnerabilidad y Riesgos de Desastres en CentroamÌ©rica. 198pp. Available at: http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/40079