Fijate Vos: The Vital Liquid

Greetings once again, Faithful Reader!

We’re here at the beginning of the rainy season – or, at least, we’re supposed to be.

Traditionally, the rainy season (or invierno – “winter” – as it’s known here in Guatemala) has started sometime in mid-May and run through sometime in mid-October. Over the past few years, however, the onset of the rains has come later and later, and during each season we’ve not had as much rain as we used to get.

Have you noticed how dry it is? How grey/brown the hills surrounding La Antigua look? While it’s normal for there to be dryness this time of year – right before the rainy season starts – you may have noticed that this time around it started back in December, only a couple of months after the end of the last rainy season. The insufficiency of rain during the previous rainy season is the primary culprit, but most of the country has been bone-dry due to the cumulative effects of years of inadequate rains.

You may have seen the news reports of huge fires in Petén – so massive that Guatemala ended up welcoming firefighting help from both Mexico and Honduras. Closer to home, it’s become almost commonplace for there to be wildfires in the hills surrounding the Cerro de la Cruz, and last month, during the Semana Santa celebrations, there was even a forest fire on Volcán de Agua.

Usually when climate change in discussed in the media, one of the primary storylines presented is coastal flooding. Since around 60% of the world’s population lives along coastal plains, this is understandable, and flooding along the world’s coasts is an extremely urgent issue. Here in the colonial city, however, we’re at about 1½ kilometers of altitude above sea level (that’s about a mile, for those gringos who still don’t understand the metric system). Obviously, we’re not in immediate danger from a rise in sea level, but the change in weather patterns has serious implications for all of us, especially in a country whose primary business is agriculture and where the overwhelming majority of farmers use no artificial irrigation and are completely dependent on natural rainfall.

Yes, for the foreseeable future, La Antigua will survive. But as time goes on we’re likely to see more and more changes. Not only is the rainy season shifting in time – starting later and maybe ending earlier – but when the rains do come, even though there is less overall rain, there are more instances of incredibly heavy downpours. This has three primary effects.
First, these heavy rains overwhelm our already strained and inadequate drainage systems – which, combined with the lack of sufficient regular maintenance by the responsible authorities, causes even more flooding in the city. Remember that, even though we’re far above sea level, we live in a valley, and water from the surrounding hills and mountains rushes down to the valley floor… that  is, right here to La Antigua.

Second, torrential rains tend to strip away fertile topsoil, washing away nutrients needed for crops and other vegetation – something that leads to less topsoil-anchoring plant life which itself leads to even more flooding. (This topsoil, carried along in the water cascading down from the surrounding hills, also tends to end up in our drainage system, further clogging it and, in turn, causing even more flooding.)

And third, because so much water falls so quickly, it doesn’t have a chance to seep into the ground and replenish the water table – it runs off as flooding. So there’s not enough moisture stored in the ground for use during the dry season. This causes the extreme dryness that we’ve noted which, apart from its disastrous effects on traditional agriculture, also causes wild plants to die (or at least to grow less), again leading to more runoff and more flooding.

Yes, I realize that this has not been a cheerful column, but it’s not really a cheerful subject. We all need to realize that the changing climate is not just something that happens somewhere else. It can, does, and will affect all of us. But no matter how small each of us is individually, there are things that each of us can do. First, pay attention. Then support causes that aim to mitigate or reverse environmental degradation; demand that policymakers work to help the situation, not exacerbate it; and change your own behavior. We should all do our own little bit.

One of La Antigua’s centuries-old nicknames is The City of Perpetual Roses. We should work to make sure that the “perpetual” part stays true.

If you have a question, a comment, or a suggestion for a topic for Charlie, you can write to chismes@quepasa.gt or friend him on Fb: /CharlieChisme.

Just to set the record straight (and to keep anyone else from being sued):
All opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies and opinions of Qué Pasa, the rest of its staff, its advertisers, or of anybody who thinks that vehicles on the Calle del Arco during weekends is a good thing.

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