The change that has come over the landscape astounds me. When I arrived, the hills were lush and green. Now they are brown, brown, brown. Everything is brown except for the sky, which is bright blue, not a cloud in sight. In the dry season, this area is a veritable desert. At night it sometimes gets chilly, but by mid-day you could fry an egg on my zinc roof.
This has been a particularly bad year for dryness, but people tell me that the winters (rainy seasons) have been getting worse and worse (less rain) over time. Less rain means smaller harvests, less food, and less money. This year’s drought has meant that for the first time the Rio Viejo, which flows through my site, has gone completely dry in places. And that is bad news for the farmers who use the river for irrigation of their vegetable fields during the dry season.
When I ask people why they think the winters have been so bad, they say, “It’s because so many trees have been cut down,” they say. And in part that’s true. These hills were forested before the trees were removed to make fields for pasture and farmland. The trees by the banks of the river used to help keep the level of the river more constant. Without them both floods and droughts are worse. And yet people keep cutting down trees. Of course, there are larger forces at work – global warming, el Nino – but local climate change here has been profound.
People are certainly aware of the problem since the drought affects their livelihoods. And the solution, at least part of it, is obvious - don’t cut so many trees and start planting. But it doesn’t happen. What I wonder is, why not? What would it take? I’m working with high school students to make a tree nursery, but what is really required is a concerted reforestation effort on the part of every family in this town. I understand why people cut so many trees. When you’re cooking with wood, you pretty much have to. For that reason, I’m trying to start a solar oven project in my town. But I’m baffled as to why people aren’t more serious about replacing what they’ve cut.
Worldwide, water is a big deal, and getting bigger. Even conflicts such as the one in the Darfour region of Sudan are based in large part on scarce resources, e.g. water. In my area the local farmers argue with the people in the town upriver from ours; they are damming the river and restricting how much water comes into our area. As a result, in our town the river has vanished completely in spots. Where there is any small pool left, motorized pumps are sucking it dry. Everybody with a vegetable field has a straw in the river, or what is left of it.
The weather people are predicting that this year the rains won’t start in earnest until August, which if it comes to pass, would spell disaster for Nicaragua. The rains are supposed to start in mid-May; if they don’t come until three months later these farmers would lose another planting season. The experts say that it’s impossible to pin individual weather events on global warming. But one thing is certain: there are some areas that are more sensitive to changing weather patterns than others. I saw a map the other day in a copy of National Geographic showing the predicted changes in rainfall due to global warming. Northwestern Nicaragua was in one of the areas that can expect to see a fifty percent decrease in rainfall over the next 25 to 50 years. If this year is a harbinger of things to come, the outlook for northwestern Nicaragua is not good.