Addressing Climate Change 

Johann Delgado 2019 Coastal Solutions Fellow 

Johann, a civil engineer from Colombia, crafted and implemented a coastal defense strategy that restores crucial shorebird habitats on Isla Punta Soldado. 

When you are an engineer, you’re trying to understand the physics of the world and how movement happens in nature. Studying the forces in ecosystems inspired my transition from being an engineer to becoming an engineer with conservation skills.

Johann Delgado 

Not long ago, Punta Soldado, Colombia, an island at the edge of the Bay of Buenaventura, was a paradise for migrating shorebirds. Western and Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson’s Plovers, and more—as many as 8,000 annually—flocked to its robust intertidal ecosystems, anchored around the mangroves and adjacent mudflats that once dotted both sides of a vast, pristine beach.

The island’s 500 Afro-Colombian inhabitants have always relied on the abundance of life found in these same waters and mudflats. Here they fish and harvest mollusks.

Everything has changed with the escalation of climate change. 

Rising ocean levels, warmed by more frequent and severe recurrences of El Niño, dramatically eroded the beach, destroyed the mangroves that were the nursery grounds for fish and mollusks, and forced many residents to relocate farther inland. The island fell eerily silent. The birds had dwindled to just 200. 

After shorebirds counts on Punta 

Soldado dropped precipitously from 8,000 to just 200 in 2021, the naturally restored coastline attracted as many as 5,000 shorebirds in 2023. 

The power of interdisciplinary innovation 

The challenges buffeting this community are what first inspired Johann Delgado to become an engineer. He wanted to solve big problems while shaping conservation action.  

“An undergraduate oceanography course changed my way of thinking,” says Johann, on track to earn a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell in 2024. “It motivated me to go to grad school, where I met colleagues who knew about mangroves, coral reefs, and the chemistry of the ocean. I realized experts from different disciplines can shape better solutions and build better projects, especially to benefit communities.” 

When Johann became a Coastal Solutions Fellow in 2019, he embraced the opportunity to partner with the residents of Punta Soldado and build a team that embodies this approach. He recruited sociologists, biologists, ornithologists and engineers—including mentor Andrés Osorio, a coastal management expert who had been his Masters advisor. While the scientists modeled currents to predict changes, the engineers, with residents, planned and constructed a natural barrier of elevated sandbars. They aimed to protect the mangroves to begin restoring shorebird habitats.  

“The moment you become a Fellow, you must be a leader for the community,” says Johann, whose first field campaign shaped his perspective. “I remember being on Punta Soldado when there was a storm. I could see the waves going right up to the town. Suddenly, you realize it’s not just about numbers. It’s about lives. It’s about dreams.” 

At the same time, he heard the community say in one voice: we are not leaving. Young resident Michel Sinisterra expresses this shared perspective, “The ocean is life. It’s hope. When you’re near it, you forget your problems. It brings peace. I don’t think I’ll ever be separated from the ocean.” 

Semipalmated Ploverby Ryan Sanderson / Macaulay Library

Hope for the next generation 

Last year a welcome indicator of success arrived from thousands of miles away as shorebirds started returning in the hundreds, then the thousands. It happened after a La Niña event that helped the recovery of the island’s beaches and mudflats.  

An important key to creating long-term success, beyond the coastal defense strategy, are the environmental education programs Johann’s team designed to ensure islanders value the role of the birds in the ecosystems they are conserving. It’s a lesson Johann hopes will one day be passed on—as young people on Punta Soldado start to take leadership roles to improve their community. 

The next generation is equally important to Johann’s work today as co-founder of the nonprofit Adaptation Latin America and a frequent speaker about coastal climate solutions. He recently shared his expertise on a larger stage—as a Youth Delegate to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28) in Dubai at the end of 2023. 

Every chance he has, Johann credits the Coastal Solutions Fellows Program for his career. “I tell people Coastal Solutions is a smart investment because it’s about people power. By reaching young professionals early in their careers and believing in them, you are giving them the chance to change the world.” 

Coastal Solutions Fellowship Program

The Coastal Solutions Fellows Program builds and supports an international community to design and implement solutions that address coastal challenges across the Pacific Americas Flyway. Our main goal is to conserve coastal habitats and shorebird populations by building the knowledge, resources, and skills of Latin American professionals, and by fostering collaborations among multiple disciplines and sectors.