The effects of climate change on Trinidad's forests, rivers and seas

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By Colleen Mudie, Hadassa Karimbocas and Jesus Bailey

This story is a combination of two posts by members of Cari-Bois’ first cohort of youth journalists, who examined the ways in which climate change affects each of their communities. The articles were first published here, here, and here on the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network. An edited version appears below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) interviewed former Norwegian Climate Minister Erik Solheim, who called for more efforts to be placed on protecting rainforests, especially since an estimated 20 percent of global carbon emissions are being generated through the destruction of rainforests.

When it comes to climate change, rainforests not only help to reduce emissions, but they can also help limit the damage done by extreme, climate-induced weather events. Protecting existing forest cover from deforestation is therefore becoming more important — especially for rural communities like Moruga, in south Trinidad.

In recent weeks, Moruga residents have not been spared from the extreme heat being experienced across Trinidad and Tobago. With global temperature averages having already increased in the past several years because of climate change, climate models only predict further heating.

Maintaining trees in Moruga will be important to helping residents cope with increasing temperatures as the presence of trees, especially around homes and communities, has a cooling effect.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and cooling through evaporation and transpiration, also called evapotranspiration.”

Maintaining trees can also help reduce landslides and floods by stabilising hillside slopes. In the past decade, Moruga has experienced several flooding events, which have affected lives and disrupted livelihoods.

In the north of the island, the Santa Cruz River, and its tributaries, have served as a place where people living along its course gather for social activities. Over time, however, such activities have declined because of the river's decreasing volume and water quality.

Wesley Karimbocas, a resident of the area, remembers the river being “way better than it appears to be right now”:

When I was a young child, my friends and I would go to the river after school to swim. The water was higher and cleaner, there were more fishes, [and] the rivers and natural pools were deeper.

While climate change isn’t the sole cause of the river’s decline, as there are quarries in the area and points along the river are polluted, its impact cannot be overlooked.

A study entitled “Global river water quality under climate change and hydroclimatic extremes,” which was published in the Nature Reviews journal in 2023, highlighted the fact that frequent droughts and shifting precipitation patterns due to climate change can decrease water levels in rivers, lakes and streams. It also stated that climate-induced warmer temperatures also cause more frequent algal blooms and reduce dissolved oxygen levels — effects that can do significant harm to ecosystems and aquatic species.

In addition to its community impact and the disruption of ecosystems, these negative outcomes also affect the farmers who depend on the river to irrigate crops. With climate change already projected to affect Trinidad with more frequent and intense droughts during the dry season, farmers will need to have reliable sources of water to irrigate crops.

A degraded Santa Cruz river is therefore also directly related to farmers’ ability to plant and successfully grow their produce, potentially reducing the availability of safe and nutritious food.

Not too far away, the north coast village of Blanchisseuse, like many rural areas, is dependent on farming, fishing, and ecotourism — but residents have become concerned about their well-being given the global climate crisis.

With increasingly frequent and extreme rainfall, there have been a number of landslides over the past several years which have affected the integrity of roads and infrastructure in the village, and often disrupted the activities of the community. Similar to agriculturalists in Santa Cruz, farmers in Blanchisseuse are concerned about the effects climate change will have on their yield. Fishermen, too, are anxious about impacts on the quality and quantity of fish they catch.

There is no doubt that climate change, with its noticeably hotter temperatures and unpredictable ripple effects on weather patterns, is already being felt in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like the Caribbean. The degree to which rural communities will be supported in attempting to mitigate these effects, however, remains to be seen.

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