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Guyana struggles to invest in climate defences

by Johann Earle | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 10 September 2012 12:33 GMT

With budgets tight, many poor countries are failing to spend enough on measures to adapt to climate change, researchers say

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (Alertnet) - Guyana has not made the financial investment it needs to cope with worsening floods and rising sea levels, highlighting how poor countries are struggling to make climate change adaptation a spending priority, researchers say.

Government funding for sea defences, drainage and irrigation has taken a backseat to expenditure on security in the poor South American nation, according to a study by geography experts at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, released earlier this year.

“Between 2008 and 2011, only 2 percent of the annual national budget was devoted to rehabilitating or upgrading the sea and river defences ($13 million in 2010), while 4 percent went to rehabilitating drainage and irrigation infrastructure ($25 million in 2010). Taken together, this adaptation-related expenditure was about half of what was committed to Guyana’s security forces, which commanded roughly 11 percent of the national budget,” the research notes.

It finds that the government of Guyana, a former British colony, is directing more resources towards climate mitigation efforts, including forest protection.

“On the one hand, the government’s mitigation efforts – which pivot on its sparsely populated interior – are bringing immediate financial rewards, some of which are targeted towards Guyana’s indigenous people. On the other hand, adaptation entails a prohibitive cost to defend against an imprecise future threat,” the study says.

Much of Guyana’s coast lies below sea level, which leaves the land vulnerable to seawater intrusion and hard to drain when tides are high or there is excessive rainfall. The majority of the country’s settlements and agriculture are located in coastal areas, meaning that extreme weather and rising seas - linked with climate change - pose serious threats to economic activity and livelihoods.

Experts interviewed for the study highlighted a shortage of capacity for research, planning and engineering in the country. One official with the department that manages sea defences explained that, after funding for projects is secured, it is a struggle to find people capable of managing them and maintaining infrastructure once it is built.

“The shortage of technical skills was regularly linked to both limitations in the education system and Guyana’s persistent ‘brain drain’, which describes the chronic emigration of skilled professions and the fact that migration remains a widely prevalent aspiration,” says the case study, intended to illustrate the challenges poor countries face in prioritising adaptation investments.

But Guyana’s minister of national resources and the environment, Robert Persaud, disagreed with some of the researchers’ conclusions.


Although the tiny nation is poor, it has spent significant amounts each year on sea defences and large reservoirs for storing and dispensing irrigation water, he said. This has come at a great opportunity cost to the provision of social services, he added.

“It must be borne in mind that Guyana’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative is simply an offer to market its forest services as opposed to its logs and lumber, and is part of a larger (low-carbon) development strategy,” he told AlertNet via email. “The financing derived from the sale of these services is intended to fund, among other things, adaptation.”

As trustee of the Guyana REDD Investment Fund (GRIF), the World Bank has so far received $70 million on Guyana’s behalf from Norway as payment for rainforest services through a forest partnership with Oslo, which will channel $50 million a year to Guyana up to 2015.

Based on successful monitoring, reporting and verification, funds for various projects are due to be released by the trustee and its partners. They include around $20 million for a hydroelectric power facility, as well as smaller activities to benefit Amerindian communities, such as the installation of solar panels and demarcation of Amerindian lands.

“While it is true that there is a large gap between what Guyana has done and what needs to be done, the degree of adaptation is a matter of financing,” said minister Persaud.

Guyana believes the need for it and other vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change stems from developed countries’ emissions over the last 200 years, “which have led to global warming, sea-level rise and changed weather patterns”, Persaud said.

Those countries that created the problem should provide financing for Guyana and others to adapt, he added.


“The responsibility is not only a moral one – it is a legal responsibility under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The limited response of Guyana to adaptation is therefore a reflection of the failure of the international community to make available the funds that they are morally and legally compelled to provide,” the minister explained.

Guyana has been working with other nations in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to establish an adaptation framework under the UNFCCC, as well as an adaptation financing window in the fledgling U.N. Green Climate Fund (GCF).

“It is hoped that the developed world will provide $100 billion annually to the GCF to allow poor impacted countries like Guyana to respond more effectively to adaptation,” Persaud said, adding that few countries have yet to benefit from the Adaptation Fund linked to the Kyoto Protocol.

Local media have reported that Guyana is making one of its biggest investments in climate change adaptation with the construction of a $15 million canal to the sea, which will drain water from one of the coast’s largest reservoirs when its level rises, threatening to burst its mud banks. Work has started and is scheduled to be completed in about a year.

But farmer Hope Rabindranauth Doodnauth, whose land is located around half an hour from the capital Georgetown, told AlertNet he is unsure when local farmers will benefit from the additional drainage the canal is intended to provide. In the meantime, he has to pay for costly petrol to pump excess water from his land so he can cultivate it.

“When water is on the land it is hard to plant,” he said. Currently, Doodnauth and others dig drains and prepare the land for sowing at their own expense. “Still we lose crops during the floods,” he said, adding that his papaya plants had been spoiled earlier this year.

Johann Earle is a Guyana-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.

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