National Commission on climate change likely By Neil Marks
Guyana Chronicle
March 15, 2007

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THE National Assembly has agreed to examine the setting up of a National Commission on Climate Change, with Parliamentarians agreeing that rising sea levels as a result of global warming threaten the coastland where most Guyanese live.

Minister of Agriculture Mr. Robert Persaud, speaking in the National Assembly Tuesday, warned that the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomenon, that brings extreme weather impacts to Guyana, is evidence of a changing climate and the forecast is of an 85 per cent probability of an El Nino event this quarter that is likely to produce drought-like conditions.

In fact, opposition Parliamentarian Ms. Sheila Holder suggested that the authorities had deliberately dropped water levels in the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) for fear of the off seasonal heavy downpours as witnessed in the past two years, but are faced with problems because of the ongoing dry season.

She said the changing climate brings unusual weather patterns and particularly pointed to 2005 when coastland regions were declared disaster areas as a result of severe flooding, which killed more than 20 persons, and devastated the coastland.

However, officials said there is no real concern about the water level of the conservancy which holds water to irrigate sugar cane plantations and rice fields along the East Coast Demerara during the dry spell.

An official indicated that the water level at Cane Grove stood at 53.75 GD, off from the desirable level of 57 GD. The official indicated that the water level was not deliberately dropped for fear of another unusual rainy season, but said dry weather had contributed to the drop.

However, he noted that at present water from the Mahaica Creek is being pumped into the conservancy through the Maduni sluice. Further, the official noted that the high tides are expected next week, and as a result water from the Mahaica Creek would be drained into the conservancy.

Ms. Holder, speaking during the debate on a motion brought by People's National Congress Reform (PNCR) Parliamentarian Mr. James McAllister to press for the establishment of the commission, expressed fear that the EDWC is headed for a "drought" and that there would be insufficient water for farmers who plant sugar, rice and other crops.

While the government insisted that it has recently reinvigorated the National Climate Committee, Holder claimed a commission has "more teeth" and McAllister said it would be a legal entity with a definite budget to press ahead in examining the effects of climate change on Guyana.

Minister of Health Dr. Leslie Ramsammy said the past decade has been the warmest on earth and stressed that the effects of climate change are a "frightening truth" that requires global consensus to reduce emissions of the damaging green house gases.

He said Guyana is least responsible for green house gas emissions, but has been speaking of its effects since 1995, when late President Dr. Cheddi Jagan spoke about its effects on climate change. He said countries such as the United States, which are responsible for significant emissions of green house gases (reportedly some 25 per cent of all greenhouse emissions in the world), have "a moral responsibility to humanity" to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The scientific community believes that the global climate is warming because of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, including industrial and manufacturing processes, fossil fuel combustion (gas) and changes in land use, such as deforestation.

The U.S. and Australia have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol which sets legally-binding targets for developed countries to reduce greenhouse emissions within seven years, to about five per cent below 1990 levels.

The Kyoto Protocol is the first international agreement to fight global warming. It was signed by 141 nations, including all European and all other developed industrial nations except the U.S. and Australia.

The pact went into effect on February 16, 2005, and expires in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol has been celebrated by its backers as a lifeline to save our planet from disastrous human-caused effects of a warming global climate.

The Motion

McAllister in his motion to the 65-seat Parliament said sea level rise coupled with an increase in destructive storms will threaten the existence of small island states and low lying communities.

He posited that since more than 90 per cent of Guyana's population live on the coastland, which also accommodates a vast majority of the country's agricultural and economic activities, global warming would a "a significant impact on Guyana."

McAllister called for the government to establish a National Commission on Climate Change and National Mitigating Measures to make recommendations and monitor actions which must be taken to address the situation.

Minister Persaud posited that the National Climate Change Commission, which was recently re-launched with environmental consultant Mr. Shyam Nokta as Chairman, would serve this purpose.

However, McAllister argued that the committee does not have legal standing and no definite budget.

As a result, in a compromise, Persaud submitted an amendment to the motion, which stated that the National Assembly through the Natural Resources Sectoral Committee would receive and review half-yearly reports from the National Climate Committee and examine "the desirability of setting up a National Commission on Climate Change" and submit its recommendations within a year.

The National Climate Committee was first set up in 1995 with the primary responsibility to decide on policies and projects relating to climate change, and was intended to determine appropriate mechanisms and personnel for implementing and managing climate change projects and for the allocation of available funds.

Guyana's carbon dioxide removal levels exceed emission under the Kyoto Protocol and it is classified as a Non-Annex. As such, Guyana is not legally required to reduce emission like many other countries.

The Government Information Agency (GINA) said focus is currently on developing cleaner sources of fuel with the construction of a co-generation plant at Skeldon in Berbice while bio-diesel is being explored by the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST).

The government, GINA state, is focused on establishing a Climate Change Unit in the Hydrometerological Service of the Ministry of Agriculture to act as a precursor to the development of a Climate Change Centre.

GINA stated that the NCC's revised terms of reference are to examine national conditions relating to climate change and to make recommendations to the Adviser to the President on Science, Technology, Energy and Environment, and relevant ministries on appropriate national measures to address the conditions.

It will advise on developments and the needs for policies and regulations in relation to activities responding to climate change and promote technical, scientific, technological and financial cooperation among organisations/agencies dealing with climate change issues, the agency said.

Monitoring the implementation of national policies, programmes and action plans related to climate change and making recommendations for appropriate changes and revisions are other functions of the NCC, it said.

Although the NCC was in existence for two years, the experience of El Nino and La Nina in 1997 heightened Guyana's awareness of climate change and the committee became an important component to address and assist in adaptation measures.

In 1996 La Nina caused heavy downpours, resulting in widespread flooding in all regions of Guyana, many areas having to be evacuated with the attendant losses of millions of dollars.

The 1997-1998 El Nino effect brought drought to the country. Many areas were declared disaster areas, brought on by forest fires and salt water intrusion into major rivers, affecting the extraction of irrigation water and loss of crops was widespread in many areas.

Persaud said that sea level rises affect the coastal defence as the coast is about 1.2m below sea level, meaning that defences are necessary to keep out the tidal surges that are sometimes in excess of 2m. He noted that Guyana experiences tidal surges that are sometimes in excess of 3m at high spring tide. Inundation of low lying areas is often caused by overtopping, breaches of seas defences and erosion of the near shore area due to shifts of ocean currents due to wind changes.

Persaud outlined a number of adaptation strategies being pursued by the government, including increasing the network of data collection stations to guide decision making, such as the redesign of drainage channels to facilitate the higher intensity of rainfall being experienced.

Another measure, he said, is the design and construction of sea defences to accommodate the projection of sea level rise. He pointed out that the "rip rap" design of the "sea wall" allows for the raising of defences to prevent overtopping.

He said research into "disease resistant, high yielding" crops to flower and produce within the season is also being pursued. He further pointed out that management plans are being developed in the fisheries, forestry and mining sectors to accommodate climate change impacts.

Further, he said the government is developing and promoting the use of renewable energy, such as wind, hydropower, and solar, to further reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.