A group of farmers stand near wetlands at the village of El Torno in northern province of Sucre, Colombia. February 11, 2020. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Anastasia Moloney
SUCRE, Colombia, – Forced to leave his small farm a decade ago to escape the worst floods in Colombia’s recent history, Manuel Jimenez knows the destruction torrential rains can inflict only too well.
“The floods left behind a desert, a cemetery of dead trees and poisonous snakes. Everything was destroyed. We lost our home, crops and animals,” said the 43-year-old farmer in Pasifueres, a remote village in the northern province of Sucre.
“We lived through a cruel tragedy,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ten years on, as climate change bites, local farmers are learning to adapt to the impacts of wilder weather by working with nature, from restoring wetlands to planting trees and growing hardy rice varieties, backed by international funding.
The 2010 flooding, triggered by heavy downpours, killed about 300 people and displaced 2.2 million more, causing billions of dollars in damages across 1 million hectares (3,860 square miles).
Hardest-hit were poor farming communities in La Mojana, a region stretching across four northern provinces.
Aid officials warn extreme weather, from torrential rains to drought, will strike again and likely become the new normal.
Some parts of La Mojana are prone to drought, while others are experiencing more intense rains, said Jimena Puyana, who heads work on sustainable development in Colombia for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
But rural communities are fighting back.
With nearly $8 million of U.N. funding since 2013, about 6,000 farming and fishing families in three municipalities of La Mojana have introduced a series of measures to adapt to climate shifts and cope better with extreme weather.
The approach focuses on so-called “nature-based solutions” – which involves improving ecosystems, including forests, wetlands and watersheds – led by village farmer associations, rather than building infrastructure like dikes and levees to contain floods.
One of the main methods is to restore the wetlands and waterways that regulate the local water supply so that they can act as natural drainage systems and buffers against storms.
Prolonged flooding and sediment build-up from illegal gold mining have damaged the wetlands around farming villages, disrupting the water’s natural flow and channels.
“What we are seeking to do is to recover the capacity of the region’s water systems,” said Francisco Charry, head of climate change at Colombia’s environment ministry, which is leading the project in partnership with the UNDP.
Climate change is worsening the conditions faced by vulnerable communities that are prone to flooding, he added.
“(They) need to find a way to adapt to this new reality,” he said.