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Honduras - In Honduras' Dry Corridor, climate change poses a painful dilemma : Adapt or leave

Deep in a remote, brown-tinged valley between palm tree-dotted hills is a soccer field at the family farm of Rony Figueroa.

It's the same field where Figueroa grew up playing the sport with friends every afternoon. As he got older, he'd join matches with his dad and other adults. When Figueroa bought the property from his father, he worked with the local municipality to improve the playing surface.

During a visit in late March, the field lay empty, in what would normally be an active time on the pitch ahead of the rainy season that historically arrives in May in central Honduras. At least that was the case a decade ago, but not in recent years.

"It makes me really sad to see a very pretty soccer field and there's not a lot of young people playing," Figueroa said on a sweltering, clear-skied day.

Part of the reason for the lack of soccer players is fewer young people living in the small town of Aguanqueterique in the heart of Honduras' Dry Corridor. More are migrating north to larger cities or taking the longer arduous journey to the United States, driven by a lack of jobs and opportunities in their homeland. The region is widely dependent on agriculture, with many families growing their own food. As rainfall patterns have become less consistent and periods of drought have persisted, harvests have dried up, and with them, prospects to build a better life.

"You need clothes, you need food and all of that. There's no employment sources, so people migrate," Figueroa said.

He can relate to the difficult dilemma facing Honduras' youth. He once left his home to head to the U.S., too.

But ultimately, Figueroa returned, and with support from local groups, international nongovernmental organizations and development agencies, including Catholic Relief Services, has built a life for his family as a farmer in his homeland.

In Honduras, the impacts of climate change are inseparably woven into the complexities of migration, on vivid display in the small and remote villages spread out in the Dry Corridor — a region of central and western Honduras whose name hints at the trials of farming in an area where water access is often scarce. (The Dry Corridor extends into other countries in Central America.) Though not the lone factor driving migration, the impacts of global warming are exacerbating the agricultural and economic strains that lead people to leave.

As industrialized countries like the U.S. concentrate climate responses on mitigation, Honduras is squarely on the front lines of climate adaptation, where the impacts of more than a century of burning fossil fuels around the world are widely evident. Efforts here, where half the population lives in poverty, focus on building resiliency and learning to live with the changes wrought by a rapidly heating world. Many endure a daily fight to survive that begins with a basic need for water. When adapting isn't possible, some look to leave, with ramifications for the countries where they head as well as for the communities they leave behind.

"[Water] is what they need to feed their families and it's what they need to have a life in Honduras," said Haydee Díaz, country representative for Catholic Relief Services Honduras. "One thing that farmers will sometimes say is, 'If I have water, I have a crop to harvest. And if I have a crop to harvest, then I can stay here.' "

In Dry Corridor, problems start with water

Across the community of Los Hornos — "The Ovens," in Spanish — in a blistering, arid part of the Dry Corridor near the border of El Salvador, the dry season and lengthy droughts have painted the tropical landscape in shades of sepia and pale yellow among strewn patches of green canopy.

The communities, mostly Indigenous Lenca, used to rely on a rainy season beginning in April, but rainfall has become less predictable and now often doesn't arrive until May. At times, the precipitation comes in short dramatic spurts, dropping levels that used to fall over several months in a day, or even in a few hours. Most people here are subsistence farmers, growing beans and corn for their own food. Few have irrigation systems, so they're dependent on what, and when, nature provides.

Limited water access has led Wilfredo Hernandez to plant a smaller corn variety that requires less water on his plot of land several hours down an unpaved road outside the town of Santa Ana.

"You never know the type of change we're going to have, but you always try to produce something," he said.

In the heart of Central America and home to 10.4 million people, an estimated 34%-38% of whom are Catholic, Honduras is among the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change. Roughly the size of Louisiana, it ranked from 1993 to 2012 as one of the three countries most affected by extreme weather events, according to the Global Climate Risk Index published by the environment and human rights organization Germanwatch.

Through working more than six decades with communities in Honduras, the staff of Catholic Relief Services, or CRS, have observed how increasing temperatures have made hard lives even harder. In the Dry Corridor, the problems start with water: Too little rain and crops dry up; too much at once and planted fields are wiped out.

"Climate change has a huge impact because the watersheds are always drying up," said Miguel Flores, a senior technical adviser for CRS Honduras who has worked nearly 40 years on sanitation and Water-Smart Agriculture initiatives in the country.

Naturally occurring weather phenomena, like tropical storms and El Niño, have long been challenges for countries across Central America's Dry Corridor. In both cases, climate change is intensifying the impacts.

Honduras' geographic location exposes it to El Niño — the recurring cycle of warmer waters in the Pacific Ocean that triggers increased rainfall in some parts of the world and amplifies heatwaves in others, as seen this summer. As El Niño raises temperatures, droughts in Honduras have become more extreme. The worst years saw farmers losing nearly all of their crops. In 2018-19, a weaker El Niño still brought devastation as a severe drought wiped out upward of 80% of crops for 65,000 farmers the first year, and in the second 170,000 farmers lost more than half their fields, according to Catholic Relief Services.

Crop loss has also followed major tropical storms, as was the case in November 2020, when twin Category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, struck Honduras days apart. While the hurricanes made landfall along the northeast coast, torrential rainfall carried well into the Dry Corridor.

In the mountainous El Cedro community, floodwaters swamped the fields of Lino Alberto, wiping out his entire corn crop, food he relies upon to feed his family.

"It was producing very good before that," he told EarthBeat, pointing to his land. "That hurricane was too much. We weren't able to work again because the soil was wet all over."

While powerful storms are not increasing in frequency, they are intensifying faster with climate change as warmer ocean water provides fuel for stronger storms, said Josue Mejia, a meteorological specialist at the Honduran Institute of Earth Sciences at National Autonomous University of Honduras, in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. Eta transformed from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in roughly 24 hours, while Iota did the same in about 32.

"The impacts of climate change are hitting us," he said.

The institute is one of a number of local organizations with which Catholic Relief Services has partnered during its 60 years in the country. In the past decade, they've focused attention on assisting subsistence farmers to adapt to challenges brought by climate change. That has included studying how it affects the country and how to equip small-scale producers with agricultural tools and techniques to weather the impacts.

"It's so important for producers to have enough safety to know that what they plant will actually produce something instead of generating losses. And the only way to ensure that is through water," Flores said.

Water is critical not just for the fields, but for the communities themselves, he added. For food security, for consumption, for health and hygiene. "Water issues cannot be separated from life," said the civil engineer who has helped establish 750-plus potable water systems across rural Honduras.

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