The Dominican Republic possesses one of the most highly noted population growth rates in Latin America: from around 500,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century to 10 million in the year 2016. Today, the country’s urban population is larger than its rural population, and the Santo Domingo metropolitan area has around 3 million (2010 Census numbers) inhabitants.
This population growth on an island of limited resources exerts an important pressure on the country’s existing ecosystem services. If we add the main economic activity: tourism, to this, which already leads to 5 million annual visitors to the country and is forecasted to reach 10 million by 2020, it is easy to see that the production of goods for citizens and tourism exerts profound pressure on the country’s national territory. This is especially true for the principal tourism-related activities, such as the quality of beaches, variety of landscapes, as well as architectural and cultural heritage.
Climate change is an unquestionable reality in today’s world. It has been proven scientifically that it has anthropogenic origins, in other words, that it is caused by human beings. Industrial waste, transport, and electrical energy based on the combustion of fossil fuels have contributed significantly to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the planet’s atmosphere, which, in turn, elevates temperatures and lead to shifts in climate.
In the Global Climate Risk Index 2015 carried out by German Watch, the Dominican Republic finds itself in 8th place among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change from 1993 to 2013. This brings to light the necessity of establishing policies oriented towards the planning of cities which are prepared to respond to the effects of climate change. Some progress has been made, and the main precedents which formalize the agreements in the Dominican Republic with respect to climate change are summarized in Decree 601-08, which created the National Council for Climate Change and the Mechanism for Clean Development (link in Spanish) to formulate, design, and execute public policies required to prevent and mitigate GHG emissions.
An analysis of the Critical Points of Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Dominican Republic (link in Spanish) carried out by USAID shows that 13 provinces (approximately 40%) have high to very high levels of vulnerability. Some of the most vulnerable provinces are: Pedernales, Bahoruco, Barahona, Elías Piña, El Seibo, and Santo Domingo, followed by: La Altagracia, San Pedro de Macorís, Monte Plata, Peravia, Monte Cristi, and Valverde.
On a national level, seasons of drought as well as torrential rains have intensified, both provoking harm to agricultural output. Particularly in Santo Domingo, these damages have led to, in times of drought, scarcity and high prices of a basic goods such as the banana. In times of heavy rains, floods paralyze the city and damage its infrastructure, which has not been prepared to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change.
Other difficulties of similar importance have risen in the country’s tourist zones. In the Dominican Republic, the main economic activity is tourism, which contributes 4.5% to the country’s GDP. Being an island country, the sun and sand tourism model is the ecosystem most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, governmental soil policies, and the environmental impacts of urban developments in tourist destinations.
(Flood zones. Source: Atlas of Biodiversity and Natural Resources)
As for sea level rise, the main affected areas which have seen a loss of beach front have been precisely those where infrastructure has been built over top of the beaches’ natural protective sand dunes or associated natural systems. This demonstrates that improper occupation of soils without taking into account environmental characteristics has been one of the long-term principal components exacerbating losses of sand and beaches. This is especially true in the case of development in areas of mangrove forests and/or wetland drainage.
Due to its location and geographic characteristics, the Dominican Republic possesses high exposure to natural phenomena which have been made more powerful due to climate change, time and again leading to emergency situations and disasters of different magnitude. Combined with social, economic, and demographic factors, the country’s topographic and orographic conditions exacerbate these already risky conditions.
The Dominican Republic is very vulnerable to hurricanes as it is located in the subtropical regional route. One example of this vulnerability can be found in 2007 when Hurricane Noel and Tropical Storm Olga passed over the country. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC), these storms led to total losses of $439 million (1.2% of GDP), affected 70% of the population directly or indirectly, and displaced more than 75,000 Dominicans. The agricultural sector was the main affected economic sector.
Other projections, for example those from Stockholm Environment Institute and Tufts University (2008), show the Dominican Republic’s possible costs of inaction towards climate change. They establish that hurricane damages, losses of tourism, and infrastructure damage due to sea level rise could reach 10% of GDP in the year 2025. Another important fact to consider is that annual gross incomes of fisheries which depend on coral reefs have dropped 60% in the past ten years (from $41 to $17 million dollars).
Flood zones. Source: Atlas of Biodiversity and Natural Resources
Texts extracted and adapted from the Santillan Atlas of Biodiversity.
Deforestation is a critical problem in the Dominican Republic. However, thanks to reforestation programs implemented to avoid losses of forest coverage beyond 1996 levels, national coverage has increased 27.5% to reach 39.7% in 2012, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. Along with deforestation, usage of unsuitable cultivation techniques and overgrazing are the principal causes of soil erosion.
A deforested territory leads to soil erosion, freshwater contamination, and marine sedimentation. Soil erosion is understood to be the result of progressive losses of a substrate’s main nutrients due to water flows and drag from winds. While erosion is a natural process, human intervention can certainly accelerate it.
Plants and their roots retain soil and make it difficult for water and wind, among other factors, to remove it. When mountains are deforested, soil displacement leads to native vegetation experiencing difficulties in naturally returning to the affected areas, due to loss of fertility in the substrate. Sooner or later, all of the displaced soil ends up in rivers and oceans, where it kills coral and other marine organisms which require transparent waters for survival.
(Zones of Reforestation and Tree Nurseries. Source: Atlas of Biodiversity and Natural Resources)
One problem which has gained ground in recent years is that of deforestation for coal production (link in Spanish). This is one of the gravest threats on a binational level, and is the result of illegal logging for coal-fired ovens in the regions surrounding Lake Enriquillo. Both Dominicans and Haitians engage in this activity, as in Haiti, almost all cooking is done with charcoal, and for Dominicans, coal is a valuable commodity which is part of the country’s exports.
Texts extracted and adapted from the Santillan Atlas of Biodiversity.
When talking about water pollution, both fluvial and coastal-marine pollution are accounted for. Water is a compound which is indispensable for life; and if it is contaminated it can transmit countless diseases. Some of the principal contaminants of water are bacteria, viruses, protozoa, metazoans (worms), metals, nitrates, fluorides, and hydrocarbons. Another factor which affects water quality is the discharge of hot water from causeways. This type of contamination, produced by abrupt temperature changes, is termed thermal pollution.
In spite of existing regulations in the Dominican Republic geared toward the avoidance of the discharge of contaminants into waters, this is a common practice in industry, tourist complexes, and urban zones. Said practice has led to the contamination of a large amount of rivers, beaches, and lagoons, as in the case of the coastal stretches of the provinces of Azua, Barahona, La Altagracia, Puerto Plata, Samaná, and Montecristi.
It is said that air is polluted when certain substances such as gases or aerosols are found in concentrations harmful to human beings and other organisms. There are a great number of contaminants, which are classified as either primary or secondary contaminants. Primary contaminants are compounds which are emitted directly to the atmosphere as a result of combustion or other chemical reactions. Carbon monoxide (CO) is one example of a primary contaminant. Secondary contaminants are those that accumulate in the atmosphere as a result of chemical reactions between a primary contaminant and other compounds in the air. When combined with sunlight, secondary contaminants can cause what is known as photochemical smog, commonly observed in industrialized cities as if it were fog or smoke.
The focal points of air pollution in the Dominican Republic are industrialized zones such as Haina, Santiago de los Caballeros, Distrito Nacional, and San Pedro de Macorís.
Solid Waste Pollution
Solid waste such as branches, leaves, animal excrement, and carcasses are routinely produced in nature. However, thanks to the process of biodegradation, solid waste does not accumulate, and is recycled, on occasion, in a very short period of time. It follows that this type of waste is not what has caused the enormous problem of global contamination due to solid waste. Instead, urban waste is to blame.
Urban waste can be defined as what is produced in cities as a result of domestic, industrial, workplace, and other activities. In the Dominican Republic, solid waste management and contamination prevention is an uphill battle, due to a lack of adequate systems, economic resources, machines, and an intensive education plan to teach proper management of urban waste. Sooner or later, the Dominican Republic must confront this problem, given that even existing landfills are in a critical state due to the accumulation of waste without effective recycling programs.