On Demand Water Helps Communities Adapt to Climate Change
Written by Brian English, Director of Program Innovation, Global Communities
As our SUV rounded the corner of the rugged road in the parched, mountainous landscape of southern Honduras, we saw an enthusiastic man waving us to proceed towards him. With his machete in one hand and a large straw hat in the other, he jumped in the back of our colleagues truck ahead of us and led us to an oasis, a 5 hectare plot blossoming with the deep green and broad leafs of plantain and papaya trees. Beyond this, gourd and watermelon plants creeped around the roots of tall yucca plants, flourishing in the shade protected from the hot sun.
The farmer, Daniel Cruz, guided us through his field, boasting about his plants like a parent would his children. He has plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic. Just 3 years ago he was only able to produce one crop, corn, whose yield was at the mercy of the rains, some years not great enough to grow anything. This provided subsistence for him and his family and, in a good year, about $500 in income. Today, he earns more than $12,000 from cultivating over 6 crops harvested throughout the year.
The source of Daniel's success is simple, a steady supply of water harvested in a reservoir uphill and fed to his crops through drip irrigation. This system was introduced by Global Communities, an international aid organization focused on sustainable community development, with funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
At a cost of $850 dollars for each drip irrigation system, Global Communities has introduced these impoverished farmers to one of the most advanced drip irrigation systems on the market, developed in Israel, and recently brought to Honduras by the John Deere corporation. It is capable of distributing water under low pressure and economizing it with a precision never achieved before. A very small piece of engineering inside the half-inch diameter plastic tubing -- that looks like a miniature maze -- controls the flow of water exiting each hole and provides a consistent drip rate. The rate of water can be regulated by a set of valves according to what the different crops need and sections of the network can be turned on and off.
The impact of this irrigation system, and seven other reservoirs constructed by Global Communities has been nothing short of a green revolution for Daniel and almost 1,000 others directly benefiting from these systems. Compared to youth-led revolutions occurring in many countries today, this revolution is being lead by the older generations, those that stayed in this unforgiving land while their children have migrated north, many to America, often to work in agriculture.
This green revolution is also keeping young adults home instead of migrating north. Daniels' four sons stood nearby as we toured through their field. They wore hoodies with headphones dangling from their ears, watching us closely with a palpable urge to be recognized for their role in creating this bounty also. The journey north, if these boys choose to leave, has become fraught with risks of human trafficking as gangs and cartels from Tegucigalpa through to the US-Mexico border have expanded into the business of trafficking humans in addition to drugs, often packaging both together.
Daniel's father and wife are also animated by this new life springing from their field. His father bent down on his knees to dig up a yucca with his machete and show us the gourd varieties as if we had never seen such a thing. Daniel's wife too cuts gourds and papaya and sells them by the road side at $2 a piece-- great money, and a guarantee that she will be able to pocket some also.
The agrarian reforms have been good to Daniel and his father, enabling them to own land. The Honduran government began addressing inequitable land ownership starting in the 1960s. The most significant actions were taken between 1972 and 1975 when 120,000 hectares were divided among 35,000 poor families. It has progressed haltingly ever since. Most recently, following the coup d'etat, President Micheletti redistributed land in 2009 by issuing 400 titles of ownership to residents here in the Department of Valle.
Landless only a generation ago, Daniel now owns five hectares with an association of 12 other farmers. Global Communities is helping these groups of farmers work collectively to buy inputs, become part of savings and credit groups and sell in the market at greater quantities and better prices.
People have practiced agriculture here since the native Lencas populated the land, during the Mayan rule. Like today, they squeezed out subsistence farming at the mercy of the weather, with rains typically coming once or twice a year. But rain has become even more sporadic with climate change and degradation of the landscape over the past half century has also depleted the productivity of the land.
This is due in part to poor agricultural practices and population growth that stripped the land of vegetation, thereby altering natural hydrological cycles, eroding soils, and causing deforestation. This desertification, has led to a continuous reduction of water availability and progressive loss of soil fertility. So when rains do come now the water retention in the soil is low and flooding is exacerbated.
Climate change is becoming a decisive factor impacting the availability and use of water resources for agriculture in many countries. It is causing crop loss and severe food insecurity.
Harvesting rainwater in reservoirs is not new - it is a centuries old practice. However innovations in drip irrigation technologies are enabling these reservoirs to be economized for much longer periods with very low pressure. All of this is new to southern Honduras.
The engineers at Global Communities confessed that they got some of their initial calculations wrong in designing the water harvesting systems. When calculating the water requirements for the farmers that determine the volume of the reservoir storage capacity, they used the original water volumes that farmers were using to produce only one harvest of corn or beans, not the multiple harvests of five or more crops like Daniel is practicing. So in some cases the reservoirs are not large enough to produce the full bounty that Daniel is able to produce. Nonetheless, they provide a steady supply of water throughout the year, which is a dramatic improvement. In two of the nine reservoirs, the soil type did not allow for the retention of water, so they have had to spend additional money to retrofit these reservoirs with liners.
The families benefiting from these reservoirs are creative and adaptive. Many of the families have introduced Tilapia to their reservoirs, which provides a rich source of protein to their diets. At the largest reservoir, families are recreating around the water body. Migratory birds are also using these oases as sanctuaries.
In 2011 Global Communities was awarded the highest environmental award of Honduras for this project and in 2012 they were awarded a $50,000 prize Actions in Water and Climate Change Adaptation for this innovation in adapting to climate change. They are using the prize money to advance the program further. Visible on Google Earth, staff are even keeping an eye on changes in the surrounding landscapes, watching them become greener.
Though the poorest region of the country, it is the safest, contradicting false assumptions that poverty leads to violence and standing in sharp contrast to Tegucigalpa, 100 miles north of Daniel's farm. At 3,000 feet higher in elevation, Tegucigalpa teeters on collapse as gangs are increasing their rule in the city and their balance of power over the government. Tegucigalpa has plunged rapidly into violence as a result of gangs and the drug trade, giving Honduras the highest homicide rate in the world.
For Daniel and 100s of other families in the south, life is no longer teetering on the edge. Instead life is flourishing as they add value to the landscape and trade produce, thanks to steady drops of water.