Sitting around a conference table in Somerville, Massachusetts, many heads nodded. “Yes,” these bobbing heads seemed to say, “We have that problem, too. Yes — we, too, are being affected.”

As Oscar Montes, director of the Municipal Office of Environment, discussed the increasing storms, worsening floods and shrinking coastline that his city La Ceiba, Honduras was experiencing due to climate change, he clicked through a number of photos.

Mothers carrying children on their shoulders through flooded streets. Shopkeepers using buckets to empty their markets of water in vain. Satellite images of an eroded coastline. Photos of houses crumbling into the sea.

Coastal cities like La Ceiba, which is home to a quarter of a million people, have always been vulnerable, but the effects of a changing climate are accelerating these threats.

You might not think that Somerville and La Ceiba have much in common, but after sitting in on a few hours of conversation between these two cities’ officials, it was abundantly evident they face similar problems, and they can help each other find solutions.

This is the key theory behind USAID’s support to the CityLinks program, implemented by the International City/County Management Association, which partners cities to share best practices for adapting to climate change.

Oliver Sellers-Garcia, director of Somerville’s Sustainability and Environment Office, points out aspects of Somerville to Oscar Montes, director of La Ceiba’s Environment Office. / Nancy Leahy Martin, USAID

Oliver Sellers-Garcia, director of Somerville’s Sustainability and Environment Office, points out aspects of Somerville to Oscar Montes, director of La Ceiba’s Environment Office. / Nancy Leahy Martin, USAID

Across the conference table, Oliver Sellers-Garcia, director of Somerville’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, translated Oscar’s presentation for his colleagues, adding his own commentary throughout.

“Oscar says that the hardest hit parts of La Ceiba are those in the urban center, where most of the population lives in the flood zone. When there are flash floods from the nearby rivers and streams, the neighborhood groups notify the city. Guys, this is something we can actually learn from La Ceiba and start doing here.”

Later in the day, Somerville’s director of Capital Projects and Planning, Rob King, showed Oscar how the city is adapting to increased rainfall.

As in many cities in the United States, storms overwhelm Somerville’s sewer system, which collects both sewage and stormwater runoff. When there is too much water for the city’s treatment plant to handle, both runoff and raw sewage get dumped into local bodies of water.

“We can put holding tanks underground to temporarily capture the stormwater that would otherwise flood our city’s sewage system, but that’s expensive,” Rob said. “We can create plant- and grass-filled medians in the roadways and direct runoff there, but that means less room for pedestrians, cars, bicyclists…”

There are no easy answers, and Oscar knows this all too well. In La Ceiba, the wastewater treatment facility’s pumps fail every time there’s a storm, spewing raw sewage into the ocean. With more storms expected in La Ceiba due to climate change, the city is trying to find affordable solutions to prevent this from happening.

Rob King, Somerville’s director of Capital Projects and Planning, discusses Somerville’s waste water treatment program with La Ceiba’s Oscar Montes. / Nancy Leahy Martin, USAID

Rob King, Somerville’s director of Capital Projects and Planning, discusses Somerville’s waste water treatment program with La Ceiba’s Oscar Montes. / Nancy Leahy Martin, USAID

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is growing at unprecedented rates. The urban poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, living in unsafe housing and in areas most prone to flooding.

By partnering cities facing similar challenges, USAID helps them to increase their resilience, protect their citizens and prepare for a changing climate.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Leahy Martin is an Urban Advisor in USAID’s Engineering and Urban Division. Follow her at @LeahyNancy.