More trees, less water stress in El Salvador

Restoring ecosystems replenishes vital water sources in the Central American Dry Corridor

El Salvador is one of the six countries that make up the Central American Dry Corridor, a vast expanse of land that is particularly exposed to climate change and water scarcity. Restoring degraded ecosystems here is key to regenerating the land and replenishing water sources critical to people’s daily lives. ©FAO/Javier Orellana


Picture patches of tropical, dry forest separated by agricultural land stretched across the surface of six countries at the heart of the American continent. This is the Central American Dry Corridor, a 1 600-kilometre-long expanse through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – home to 11.5 million rural people, who largely depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Known for its erratic rainfall patterns, the Dry Corridor is one of the world’s most exposed and vulnerable regions to climate change. For over a decade, warming temperatures and severe drought – coupled with deforestation and land degradation – have led to a water-thirsty agriculture sector and threatened food security for its inhabitants.

Located in the midst of this Dry Corridor is El Salvador, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate risks in the world. At present, El Salvador’s per capita availability of freshwater is well below the critical threshold, and there are projected increases in the variability of rainfall, temperature and occurrence of extreme weather.

Restoring degraded ecosystems in El Salvador and the Dry Corridor in general is key to regenerating the land and replenishing water sources that people depend on for their food, income and well-being. This is the focus of the “Upscaling climate resilience measures in the Dry Corridor agroecosystems of El Salvador” (RECLIMA) project – a USD 127.7 million initiative led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with the support of the Government of El Salvador and financed by the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

Here are three ways FAO’s RECLIMA project is helping rural communities in El Salvador restore ecosystems and become more resilient to climate change:

1- Reintroducing native trees to fight water stress

Below average rainfall and overuse of water resources have led to lower river levels and water scarcity that pose a major threat to the livelihoods and food security of El Salvador’s family farmers. Representing more than 80 percent of all food producers in the country, these farmers depend primarily on traditional, rainfed agriculture. They grow maize, beans and sorghum crops mainly on hillsides prone to soil moisture loss and erosion.

As part of the RECLIMA project, rural communities have begun setting up tree nurseries to restore degraded ecosystems through reforestation and other techniques, which improve water infiltration in the soil and reduce erosion.

Communities involved in the project receive young, tree species native to Central America to plant on their lands. These native trees include the conacaste tree, known for its ear-shaped fruits; the madre cacao, a forage tree that stabilizes the land and prevents soil erosion; and the leucaena tree, celebrated for improving soil fertility.

So far, thirty-three tree nurseries have been set up under the initiative. In 2022, over 13 000 hectares of critical ecosystems were restored using native tree species.

As part of FAO’s RECLIMA project, rural communities are restoring degraded ecosystems through reforestation and other techniques, which improve water infiltration in the soil and reduce erosion. ©FAO/Javier Orellana

2- Enhancing farmers’ resilience through agroforestry

For farmers in El Salvador and the Dry Corridor in general, integrating trees with crops and livestock grazing improves water infiltration and brings moisture back to soils. Known as agroforestry systems, these combinations improve production, reduce erosion and capture carbon.

Agroforestry offers social, economic and environmental benefits. In addition to food and nutrition security, long-lasting woody perennial species (such as trees and shrubs) enrich the soil with organic matter, which helps to retain soil moisture and recharge local aquifers. This in turn helps to maintain critical water supplies in local springs.

In an effort to increase agroforestry practices, FAO and El Salvador’s National Centre for Agricultural and Forestry Technology have engaged almost 23 000 farmers in novel, participatory activities at farmer field schools. These informal settings create a space for farmers to share their experiences and gain knowledge about agroforestry techniques that empower their decision-making skills.

Approximately 17 000 hectares of degraded land are expected to be restored by the middle of 2024 and will directly benefit nearly a quarter of a million people in 50 000 family farms.

The RECLIMA project improves the resilience of vulnerable smallholder farmers to climate change through the implementation of different adaptation practices and ecosystem restoration techniques. ©FAO/Javier Orellana

3- Restoring plant cover for water security and climate action

Sustainable land management is a winning solution for people and the environment. More plants and trees on land means more carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil. In turn, healthier and more fertile, carbon-rich soil leads to better water infiltration in soils and better food production.

Farmers implemented sustainable agricultural practices on more than 20 000 hectares of land, helping to restore ecological connectivity, ensuring the increased movement of species and flow of natural processes.

Combined, ecosystem restoration and sustainable land management have enormous potential for climate action: the RECLIMA project alone has already reduced around 2.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, and a further 2 million tonnes of emissions will be sequestered by the end of the project.

The big picture

The RECLIMA project is one of the many collaborative initiatives focused on restoring the Central American Dry Corridor. As co-leads of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme are also driving forward the Central American Dry Corridor Flagship Initiative focused on reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss.

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6. Clean water and sanitation, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land