Climate change and the future of Monterrico

 The South Coast of Guatemala is formed by the fertile soil from volcanoes inland. The Rio Maria Linda and Rio de los Esclavos has dragged mud and sand for many millennia, conquering ground from  the Pacific Ocean. It is a landscape in constant movement, the course of rivers, wind and waves. There is no bedrock, no hills, we all live at less than five meters above sea level.

The sea has yielded to the land during many centuries. Archaeological excavations at the ranch Chiquiuitán indicate that there was more salt water in the canal then, there was an estuary close by and the coast may have been  further inland 3000 years ago [1]. The coastline may have been advancing about 30 centimeters per year in previous centuries.

This delicate balance between land and sea seems to be changing. The trend of the sea receding may have become reversed. Many neighbours have noticed that  water in the wells is becoming more salt. What  was a slight touch of salt at the end of the dry season before, now  becomes salt water all year, so salty that it no longer serves either for consumption or for irrigation.

Another bad sign is the   heavy surf, as in the beginning of May 2015. The waves reached the doors of the houses, in many places they entered.

The sea level is rising

The concern is that the level of the oceans is rising. Precise satellite measurements indicate a rise of 3.2 millimeters per year over the last two decades [2].

That in itself is a moderate increase, and so far, it shows up  more on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. However, predictions of the UN and NASA say that it is going to rise at least 30 centimeters in this century. As shown in the following figures there are indications that the process will accelerate. It all depends on the speed of melting glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

On a flat coast, when the sea rises 30 centimeters, the beach retreats approximately 30 meters inland. [9]. Near the sea, the vegetation dies, palm trees fall and dunes are formed further inland. As seen in the photos from Thailand in  the right column of this  page, that is a process known in various parts of the world. The effect on our coast is difficult to predict. At  the coast east of Monterrico, once the waters reach the first houses, it will flow downhill towards the inland waterway. If the sea rises during a heavy storm, and the canal overflows at the same time, the two  can easily join. The water recedes after the storm, but  ruins the vegetation and houses. It can be a slow process, lasting many decades, or a natural disaster that occurs suddenly. There is no reason to panic, but we should prevent and counteract this process of rising sea. If this process gains speed, we can't stop it, and the sea level will rise  eight meters over the next two centuries. If we let that happen, the coastal cities of this world will disappear. Monterrico would end up beneath the waves of the Pacific ocean and the coast recedes back to where it was 3,000 years ago. Water levels won't stop there, theywill keep increasing and Taxisco will have its own beach a century later.

The coast is now heavily populated. Guatemala's population is multiplying by a factor of ten during one century. UN projections is 31 million people in 2050, ten times more than the population in  1950. [3] This means that the mangroves and the vegetation cannot move inland, that stretch of land is heavily populated already.

What is the cause?

Human civilization has exploited the resources of coal and oil too quickly. These reserves have taken 300 million years to accumulate, and we're running through them in little more than a century. That causes a greenhouse effect, a thick layer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The gas itself is not toxic, it is what plants and trees breathe, but it happens so fast that our environment can not absorb it all, and these emissions stay in the atmosphere. This makes our world heat up.  The process starts slowly, but the problem is that the impact of all the  coal burned over the past 40 years, has not arrived yet. [5] The sea is heated slowly, it expands and we note the impact on sea levels and air temperature several decades later.

This means that a global temperature increase of 2 degrees  can not be avoided [4]. However, with a global effort to reduce the use of coal, diesel and gasoline we can avoid further increases to 4, 6 and more degrees. We have clean and renewable energy sources that can  replace coal and oil. If world leaders do not agree, there is a danger that we trigger a rapid heating that will lay waste all tropical countries in this world.

 Guatemala is not a  big spender of petroleum and coal, but suffer the consequences of what others have done. An inhabitant of the USA contributes twenty times more to global warming than an inhabitant of Guatemala [7], their lifestyle involves high energy consumption, but the effects are not limited to those who caused it, they are noticed world wide.


What can we do?

National and global measures:

  • Convince political leaders to put an ecological tax on gasoline and coal, which reflects the real cost of their environmental impact.
  • Promoting clean energy, based on solar panels, windmills, geothermal and hydroelectric. Guatemala has sufficient resources of renewable energy for transport, industry and domestic use without damaging the environment.
  • Railway lines to replace cars
  • Protective measures for coastal areas

Local actions:

  • A new bridge as an escape route in case of flooding. Until now, the only way out is the road from Hawaii to Iztapa. This road is flooded every time the canal water level rises. As happened last time in October 2011, the only way out is with river barges. They have little capacity to evacuate thousands of people in an emergency. In addition, if a sea intrusion happens during a storm with high winds, navigating a churning, tumultuous river may be impossible. In this case, thousands of people will become trapped.
  •  Dredge the channel. To prevent flooding, the   free flow of water must not be obstructed, and the estuary out to sea must be kept open.
  • Coastal protection measures. The coastline is owned by the nation, given in lease to particulars by OCRET. The  OCRET contracts contain an obligation to preserve and protect the environment, including a ban on deforestation and burning or making clearings. The best defense against the sea entrance is to plant coconut palms and protect the sea front shrubbery. Those who burn all vegetation instead of protecting their land should lose their contract with OCRET, and is should be leased to someone else who knows to preserve it.
  •  Collaboration. If a neighbour  neglects to take protecting measures, he is not only giving it away to the sea, but also opens up a gap that will flood the neighbours who live behind. Everyone has to work together so that the next generation has a future on the coast. Later it may be necessary to fortify the entire coast with dikes and gabions. This kind of public work is what they have done in the Netherlands for centuries, and is now under planning in cities like Miami and New York. It can be financed through a carbon tax.
  • Support the ecology movement. Avoid devastating industries, preserve the mangroves and the wildlife.

There is time to prepare against the entry of the sea. There is no reason to panic, but to plan ahead to preserve the environment. Only then, future generations can enjoy the beauty of the landscape between the canal and the sea.



[1] Molly Morgan: Fixing residence: Formative period place making at Chiquiuitán, Guatemala (Doctoral dissertation, Nashville, Tennessee,2010) p. 54

[2] satellite data - sea levels 1992-2014, sea level trends:

[3]. Population data 1950-2100,

[4] IPCC Synthesis Report Figure 2.2 p. 61


[6]Grupo de expertos de la ONU sobre el cambio climático:




3000 year old settlements, one kilometre behind El Banco. Fuente: [1]

Waves reach the coastal vegetation, May 2015

The canal overflows in Monterrico, October  2011

Medium sea levels rise 3.2 millimetres a year: [2]

Until now, the sea level rise is noted most strongly in South East Asia: [2]

The most optimist UN projection, seen on the left, gives a sea level increase of 50 centimetres by 2080-2100. If the ice melting in Polar zones increase, we will see the scenario on the right, with more than a  metre increase: [4]

Future sea level projections, with a range of possible sea levels between 40 and 120 centimetres. Source: [4]

Dikes against the North Sea, the Netherlands

Population increase in Guatemala, 1950-2050. Source:[3]

Falling palms in Thailand

 The coast line south of Bangkok has lost a kilometre to the sea during the last 30 years. The cause is disputed, it may be sinking land masses more than sea level rise.