How is climate change impacting Guatemala and its people?

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala - climate change

Guatemala is consistently ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to the affect of climate change. The Global Climate Risk Index consistently puts the nation in the top 10 of countries at an extremely high risk of exposure to extreme events.


Increased rainfall during the wet season combined with extremely severe, lengthy droughts is bad news for a country that relies so heavily on agriculture. As climate change worsens with each passing year, it’s becoming more difficult for both commercial agriculture and subsistence farmers to survive.


Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala: the impact of climate change

Around half of the workforce in Guatemala is within the agricultural sector and increasingly poor harvests are driving workers away and impacting the availability of food.


In 2019, the Guatemalan System of Climate Change Sciences released a report that shows the rainy season is starting later every year. This results in long droughts, poor harvests, a drop in output and food shortages within indigenous and poor communities.


Guatemala’s location combined with its mountainous terrain makes it exceptionally vulnerable to severe weather events such as floods, landslides and hurricanes. Generally erratic weather patterns add to the problems, with frequent unexpected falls and spikes in temperature, random frosts, torrential rains and long droughts.


Food security is one of the biggest challenges facing the country, particularly in an area known as the ‘corredor seco’, which extends from Baja Verapaz in the north to Jutiapa in the south.


Guatemala deals with high levels of rural poverty

Guatemala also deals with extreme poverty, particularly in rural areas. These are, of course, the areas dealing with the biggest impact from adverse weather and climate change.


Just under half the population of Guatemala lives below the poverty line, a problem exacerbated by poor infrastructure. Every vital service, from communications to water are exposed to the damage caused by high winds, storms, floods and erosion.

The country’s climate is generally tropical, but it does differ depending on the region. Temperatures are cooler up in the highlands, while the rainforest areas are more humid. There are even areas of dry scrubland in the eats. Historically, Guatemala has two distinct seasons: a rainy season from May to October and a dry season from November to April. These are now shifting due to climate change.


Hurricane season is usually between May and November, and Guatemala is particularly vulnerable to these severe storms on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Severe weather events hit the country every year now. For example, June 2020 saw heavy rain sweep into the country from Tropical Storm Amanda.


Although relatively shortlived, the storm killed a number of people in Guatemala, caused extensive damage and dangerous landslides. These are no longer rare events. Every year, the people of Guatemala brace themselves for extreme weather.


Poverty hinders attempts to deal with climate change

The systemic problem faced by Guatemala that impacts every response to climate change is the poverty suffered by so many. People with nothing already suffer more from disease, malnutrition and generally lack healthcare. Add on to this repeated harvest failures, damage and flooding from extreme weather, it’s clear to see why so many people suffer every year.


One of the biggest threats to Guatemala because of climate change is the constant threat of water shortages. Experts say that around 95% of surface water in Guatemala is contaminated. This means farmers must rely on rainfall to keep their crops going. The recent fluctuations in rainfall duration and timing is causing major problems for farmers. The lack of solid infrastructure or necessary expertise to build effective reservoirs further damages their prospects.


Desperate to escape the ‘dry corridor’, and unable to continue farming, many Guatemalans are choosing to migrate within the country or leave it entirely. In 2019, the US recorded a surge in Guatemalan immigrants looking for a new start. And while the US has aid programmes in place to try to help Guatemalan farmers remain on their land, there have been severe cuts under the current administration.


Action programmes to combat climate change in Guatemala

There are still some programmes and projects working in Guatemala to try to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. The Rural Development and Adaptation to Climate Change project is funded by Germany and has been running since 2013. It works with both the private and public sector to improve Guatemala’s environmental management and how it adapts to climate change.


Pilot schemes were launched as part of the project in Baja Verapz and El Progreso provinces to encourage more efficient use of the natural resources available. This includes rainwater collection systems and establishing protection against soil erosion.


The future of climate change for Guatemala means there will be a steady increase in extreme weather events. And while these cause immense flooding and landslides, the most dangerous long-term projection for Guatemala is actually a lack of water. The increasingly long drought periods are threatening drinking water supplies and agriculture. Climate models show that Guatemala will experience a sustained but gradual decline in rainfall, eventually leading to a 27% decrease by 2100. More work must be done to offset the biggest threat of climate change in this beautiful, remarkable country.