On-Demand Water Helps Communities Adapt to Climate Change
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 five-hectare plot blossoming with the broad, deep green leaves 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 three years ago he was only able to produce one crop – corn, whose yield was at the mercy of the fickle rains. Most years, this provided subsistence for him and his family and during a good year, about $500 in income. Some years, however, there was not enough rain to grow anything at all. Today, he earns more than $12,000 from cultivating over six 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 (formerly CHF International), an international aid organization focused on sustainable community development, with funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Global Communities has introduced these impoverished farmers to one of the most advanced drip irrigation systems on the market. Developed in Israel, and recently bought to Honduras by John Deere, 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 — which 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 led by the older generations, those who stayed in this unforgiving land while their children have migrated north, many to the United States to work in agriculture.
This green revolution is also keeping young adults home instead of migrating north. Daniel's four sons stood nearby as we toured their field. They wore hooded tops with headphones dangling from their ears, watching us closely with a palpable urge to be recognized for their role in creating this bounty. If these boys choose to leave, there is reason for their father to be concerned: the journey north has become fraught with the risks of human trafficking as gangs and drug cartels from Tegucigalpa through to the US-Mexico border have expanded.
Daniel's father and wife are also animated by this new life springing from their field. His father bent 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 profit, 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 slowly ever since. Most recently, in 2009 following the coup d'etat, President Micheletti redistributed land 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 in Honduras since the native Lencas populated the land, during the Mayan era. Like today, they squeezed out subsistence farming at the mercy of the weather, with rains typically coming once or twice a year.
Degradation of the landscape over the past half century (due to poor agricultural practices and population growth) has stripped the land of vegetation, altered natural hydrological cycles, eroded soils, and spurred 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 and, for Daniel and the hundreds of other families living there, life is no longer teetering on the edge. Instead, life is flourishing as they add value to the landscape and trade produce.
In 2011, Global Communities was awarded the highest environmental award of Honduras for this project, and in 2012 they were awarded a $50,000 Actions in Water and Climate Change Adaptation prize for this innovation in adapting to climate change. They are using the prize money to further develop the program.