We’re facing the worst environmental crisis in recent history
Environmental problems shouldn’t
just be the concern of environmentalists.
Climate change is an environmental nightmare
to which Nicaragua has contributed very little,
but our own recent environmental disasters
can be laid at the feet of indolent authorities and
short-sighted businesses with predatory practices.
People who fail to protest or who act irresponsibly
also share the blame for what’s happening today.
This report by a national environmentalist NGO
sounds the alarm for us to change course.
We, the organizations that have signed this report, have analyzed the country’s environmental situation using satellite images, data gathered by the peasant climate-monitoring network, media and social network reports, technical reports and field verifications, all of which reveal the worst environmental crisis in the country’s recent history. This crisis has been triggered by two main factors: inadequate management of the environ¬ment and natural resources promoted by a predatory ex¬trac¬tive production model and the adverse effects of climate chan¬ge that have begun to appear here, aggravated by an intense El Niño drought phenomenon between 2014 and 2016.
The production model has promoted extensive extractive activities—cattle ranching, mono-cropping, industrial and small-scale metal mining—linked to highly-contaminating technological packages that substantially deteriorate the material natural resource base and the environment, particularly the water and soil. Concerned by this situation, we are informing the authorities and the citizenry.
Loss of forests
A comparative analysis of the current forest cover was done based on official Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry soil use data from 2011, updated to January-April 2016 based on satellite images from the Landsat 8 sensor, prioritizing six departments (Madriz, Boaco, Nueva Segovia, Estelí, Chinandega and Jinotega). It revealed reductions of over 36,000 hectares in open and closed broadleaf forests and over 6,000 hectares in open and closed pine forests. This total lost forestland corresponds to new areas destined for pastureland and agriculture.
Based on confirmed information obtained through social networks and the media and on information we present in this document from organizations in different areas of the country, a map was drawn up showing the estimated effects of tree felling and forest fires in the country.
Forest loss in protected areas
Direct effects have been identified in 12 protected areas under different management categories: the Southeast Biosphere Reserve and Bosawás Biosphere Reserve; the Solentiname archipelago; the El Tisey-Estanzuela, Punta Gorda, Cerro Silva, Dipilto-Jalapa Mountain Range and Tepesomoto-La Patasta nature reserves; the Yalí and Cosigüina Volcanos and the San Cristóbal-Casita volcanic complex; and the Miraflor-Moropotente plateaus. The most alarming figures correspond to the change in soil use within the Southeast and Bosawás Biosphere Reserves. The data analyzed confirm the reduction in closed broadleaf forests and areas that should be preserved for natural regeneration (known as tacotales, or forest fallow). This reduction is directly proportional to the increase in open broadleaf forest and in agricultural and pasture areas.
One of the areas most affected is the Biosphere Reserve of Southeast Nicaragua, where there has been an alarming conversion of closed broadleaf forest into pasture area, and a significant increase in forest fallow not necessarily for natural regeneration, considering the over 2,000 hectares sown with palm and African oil palm in the Reserve. To a lesser degree, an increase in open broadleaf forest has been reported.
Inadequate forestry sector management
Although the forest sector is an important source of resources for the country, there have been no significant changes in forestry management, regulation and control. Extractivism has been maintained with no sustainable forest management and investments in the forest sector have been aimed at extraction.
In addition, despite the closed season on timber extraction in force, such activities continue due to a high degree of illegality in the concession and/or permit processes, demonstrating that totally prohibiting forest felling would not resolve the problem.
Reduction in water availability
The drought has directly affected the volumes of water available from the country’s main surface and subterranean sources, particularly in environmentally fragile territories such as wetland zones (approximately 20% of the national territory), which are the main ecosystems that help control flooding, improve water quality and recharge aquifers. One example is the complete drying up of the surface water sources of the Tisma Lake System, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, which helps recharge the subterranean aquifer at a volume of 914 million cubic meters a year.
In the first quarter of 2016, the level of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) has dropped approximately 2% compared to its historical average. This means that the lake has stopped receiving a volume of water equivalent to the amount needed to fill two million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Meanwhile, the level of Lake Xolotlán (also known as Lake Managua) has dropped approximately 4%, the equivalent of the water needed to fill over half a million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Despite the large number of public instruments and policies aimed at conserving and sustainably using the country’s water resources, government authorities at different levels have demonstrated a noticeable lack of political will to guarantee their implementation.
The mandate established in article 134 of the General National Waters Law (Law 620) has not been complied with, as seven years and ten months have now passed since the deadline by which the corresponding authorities were to have drawn up and approved the Special Canons Law for use and exploitation of national waters and discharge of waste waters into receiver bodies, considered one of the main economic instruments for sustainable management of the country’s water resources, particularly to guarantee planning, research and protection of the sources.
Nicaragua still does not have the National Water Resources Plan established in article 17 of Law 620, which is to serve as the basis for drafting plans and programs for each basin, guiding the water planning priorities at the national level and by hydrological units.
Conditions of access to water
for human consumption
In September 2015, the United Nations passed its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and mandated that one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) be aimed at reaffirming the commitment of all States to guarantee the human right to potable water and sanitation through their sustainable management. Despite this, Nicaragua has not prioritized the establishment of an open and inclusive process for defining the specific indicators to ensure fulfilling the objectives for this SDG.
To appropriately estimate the level of progress and fulfillment of the SDG for water, detailed and quality information is needed and must be available to all sectors at all levels in order to contribute to effective decision-making.
The different economic activities fostered and endorsed by the current development model promoted by the government have generated accelerated deterioration levels and a considerable reduction in the volumes of water sources used for human consumption, thus violating what is established in the General National Waters Law, which prioritizes the use of water for human consumption above any other. According to the baseline of the Rural Water and Sanitation Information System (SIASAR), an initiative in which Nicaragua participates:
• Approximately 48% of the communities registered in the database do not have potable water supply systems.
• 22% of all communities taken into account in the baseline report open-air defecation.
• Over 50% of these communities do not have the conditions for a healthy environment.
• Of the total registered water systems, 27% do not have enough water to guarantee the population’s basic needs during the months of the dry season and over 25% of those systems are located in micro-basins that are either completely deteriorated or are rapidly becoming degraded.
Current climate conditions
During 11 of the last 15 years we have suffered rain deficit and heat stress. In the last three annual rainy seasons, Nicaragua has been under the influence of the phenomenon known as El Niño, marked by a precipitation deficit whose intensity this time exceeded the rates recorded in 1997-1998. This situation could become more acute every time El Niño appears, growing more intense and recurrent with the boosting of the phenomenon by the consequences of global warming. In 2015, the regions most affected by the precipitation deficit were the northern-central, southern Pacific and western Pacific zones.
Last year was the third consecutive year Nicaragua’s rainy season has been below the historical range, making it impossible to produce during the year’s first crop cycle. Precipitation levels have been on a downward trend of 35% since 2013, approximately 490 millimeters less each year, with all of the normally six months of the rainy season displaying precipitation levels below the normal ranges.
The precipitation deficit in 2015 was 50%, the con¬se¬quences of which are evident in rivers and lakes. The total rainfall and the number of days on which it rains are falling, with 2015 recording the fewest rainy days—approximately 57 compared to a more typical rainy season in which it rains approximately 100 days. It was also the first time it did not rain at all in May. Also observed was the late departure of the rainy season, as it rained on half of the days of November 2015, exceeding the historical norm. And the “canícula” (a period approximately midway through the normally six-month rainy season when the rains let up) was dry and extended.
These last three years have indicated that precipitation is shifting to the end of the rainy season. If this trend continues, the country’s first planting cycle could disappear, as the months affected by the rainfall deficit were May, July and August, which are determining months for production during that cycle.
The whole country was affected by heat stress
• All months in 2015 showed an average temperature increase of at least 1°C (1.8°F) compared to historical norms. August and September were up more than 3°C.
• Traditionally hot areas, such as the country’s northwest, showed the greatest national temperature ranges, with a difference of over 10°C between the minimum and maximum temperatures for each month.
• The months that traditionally have the highest tem¬¬peratures are March and April. However, in 2015 the last six months of the year also had high temperatures.
• Some months have registered minimum temperatures close to the monthly averages with maximum temperatures close to 40°C (104°F) on consecutive days.
• With respect to temperatures, we have reached a point at which “breaking records is normal.” Last year was the world’s hottest year on record, with a mean global temperature of 14.79°C (58.62°F), which is 0.91°C higher than the norm.
• High temperatures could continue being recorded every time El Niño presents itself, as it boosts the global warming generated by climate change.
According to our own climate simulations, 2018 will probably be the next year with a precipitation deficit. And each year after the phenomenon of El Niño, or else when it dissipates, there is an intense tropical cyclone. This prediction is based on statistical evidence and the frequency of the appearance of intense tropical cyclones.
Public sector investment
in the environment
In 2016, Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved a budget line to invest in the environment—29.6% for the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR) and 7.6% for the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA)—that was less than that assigned for 2015.
One of the reasons for the lack of monitoring and regulation by the entities responsible for environmental issues and natural resources in the country is that only 0.67% of the national budget is allocated to this sector, including the amounts assigned to the decentralized institutions and entities.
• We are facing an extremely serious environmental situation. We are exposed to climate variability due to environmental destruction. The ecosystems have been weakened to such a degree that their ecological response capacity has been undermined by both weakness and environmental degradation. We have squandered the favorable conditions Nature has bestowed upon us. Sensible planning for better soil use and to correct the damage already caused is now the only way to resolve this crisis.
• Although the forestry sector has great potential for providing the country with resources, there have been no significant changes in forestry management, regulation and control. Instead, extractivism is maintained with no sustainable forest management and no major investments in the sector, preventing it from being appropriately managed and becoming one of the main areas of the country’s economic development.
• It is impossible to disassociate forests from water and to ignore how forest degradation affects the environment, human health and, in the long term, even the country’s economy, causing a significant reduction in the availability of surface and subterranean waters for human consumption, affecting food and nutrition security and increasing social conflicts.
• The country’s development model has high environmental costs as the current economic growth levels are based on environmental degradation. The accelerated advance of agriculture and extensive cattle ranching are responsible for the greatest negative effects on Nicaragua’s main biosphere reserves. The establishment of over 2,000 hectares of monocrops in the Southeast Reserve must sound an alert, considering that this kind of activity violates the environmental regulatory framework and contributes to the deterioration of the forests, water and soil.
• Natural resource conservation remains a challenge for our country and the funds assigned for projects implemented by the national authorities have been too limited to compensate for the environmental liabilities.
• Each one of us, authorities and citizens, has an enormous quota of responsibility that we cannot ignore.
Proposals to the State,
institutions and citizenry
• Effective implementation of the existing sectoral plans.
• Compliance with the environmental legal framework, particularly with regard to environmental crimes.
• Drawing up of a National Comprehensive Water Resource Management Plan.
• Drawing up of a National Sustainable Forest Management Plan.
• Drawing up of a National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.
• We call on the citizenry to mobilize in favor of caring for, protecting and recovering the natural resources in the country’s different areas. Community organizations are very important for the development of this action.
• We also call for the strengthening of citizens’ surveillance and the denunciation of environmental crimes.
Centro Humboldt is a nongovernmental organization founded in 1990 that works to promote environmentally-sustainable territorial development with social participation.