In the high-altitude watersheds of the Coatán and Suchiate rivers, which straddle the borders of Guatemala and Mexico, environmental degradation and climate change is increasing the risk of devastating flash floods caused by tropical storms and hurricanes.
These watersheds have been deforested and are badly degraded in many places, with severe erosion of formerly deep soils reducing their capacity to retain water. Population density is high and ongoing ecological degradation is limiting people’s livelihood options; communities in both the upper and lower watersheds are vulnerable to flooding.
In 2005 tropical storm Stan caused flooding and mudslides that led to an estimated 2,000 deaths and damages of up to US$ 40 million. Roads, bridges, water supply systems, crops and local economies were destroyed. The disaster propelled communities into action. With the support of IUCN’s Water and Nature Initiative and other organizations, they organized themselves into ‘micro-watershed councils’ to coordinate watershed management among groups of villages. People have become aware of the effects of unsustainable environmental management. They have identified the different demands on water and defined priorities for managing and restoring watersheds that meet their development needs. Farming systems have been diversified, including terracing of degraded slopes and reforestation is taking place with the introduction of agro-forestry. Communities are investing their labour and capital in restoration of natural infrastructure and, as self-organisation expands, they are becoming better equipped to adapt to climate change and less vulnerable to severe storms.