Deforestation, intensive storms and floods show effects of climate change in Dominican Republic

December 9, 2010

It is estimated that by 2050, 80 percent of the rivers in the Dominican Republic will have dried up unless something is done to stop deforestation and develop a strategy to slow climate change, said Silvio Minier of Oxfam.

Minier, a former Jesuit priest who now works in advocacy and programs for Oxfam based in Santo Domingo, addressed the Episcopal Climate Justice Gathering Dec. 8, giving an overview of the local effects of climate change.

More than 30 people -- mostly Anglicans and Episcopalians and a few ecumenical seminarians -- from Cuba, the United States, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are meeting Dec. 7-10 at the Bishop Kellogg Center to explore intersection between poverty and climate change, and perhaps frame the conversation in terms of "climate justice." The meeting is convened by Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California, and Bishop Naudal Gomes, Diocese of Curitiba, Brazil.

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and is crisscrossed by three mountain ranges. In the 1980s, Dominicans migrated to cities from rural areas; 50 percent of the population now lives in cities and surrounding areas, Minier explained, as translated from Spanish.

Some cause and effect can be quantified, Minier continued.

Forests areas surrounding cities have been clear cut to make way for agriculture. Over the last 10 years both the dry season and the rainy season have lengthened. Desertification and deforestation have increased the danger and severity of floods – rivers crest their banks, destroying crops and livelihoods. Water levels in Lake Enriquillo, the country's largest, along with Lake Sumatra in Haiti, have risen more in the last five years than in the previous 200. Hurricanes and tropical storms have strengthened and wrought havoc, Minier said.

As an example of flood severity, Minier shared a photo from a storm in 2007 that showed flood waters at roof-top levels; adding that the photo was taken in a flat area and that in mountainous regions, floods are even more severe.

"The Dominican Republic is the eighth country in the world that will be most affected by climate change," Minier said, adding that governments are not doing anything, and that the local environmental council has studied climate change's effects on the coast and tourism, but not on poor people and agriculture.

The Episcopal-Anglican gathering coincides with the U.N. Climate Change Conference of world leaders who are nearing the end of a second week of climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, to attempt to hammer out the details of an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

At the 2009 U.N. conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, negotiators failed to reach a binding deal to replace the protocol. Developing nations are pushing for a second phase of the Kyoto agreement, including deeper emissions cuts. Developed countries, including Japan, Russia and Canada, have said they will not accept further cuts.

In Cancún, nations have been unable to agree on key issues, such as reducing emissions and monitoring other nations' adherence to reducing emissions, and the specifics on a disaster fund for developing countries, could potentially mean another Copenhagen-style failure to come to an accord, according to news reports.

Oxfam works with partners in the Dominican Republic to mitigate the effects of disaster before disaster happens, but so far the government, Minier said, only responds to disaster and has not made progress towards prevention.

When asked what the church can do to help, Minier explained that people need to be made to realize their role in what is happening and that the government, which is doing some things, needs to be pushed to do more.

And he stressed, "You can't have plans for climate change reduction without including women and food security."