River Models: Latin American countries
pioneer new ways of protecting river basins

By Michele Thieme, Director of Freshwater Science & Ecosystems, Freshwater Programme, WWF-US

© JORGE GARCÍA / FUNDACIÓN OMACHA

The news for rivers around the world tends to be quite dismal — the headlines most often report how our rivers are under assault from pollution, floods, droughts, dams and alien species. Because of these threats, our rivers are losing life. Freshwater species populations have declined by 81% since 1970; that’s twice as fast as the decline of marine or terrestrial species.

But in the past few weeks, two presidents have waded into the battle to
safeguard rivers and freshwater resources, signing historic decrees that will help to protect critically important rivers in Colombia and Mexico — and prove that progress is possible.

On Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the Bita River would be protected as a Wetland of International Importance under the RAMSAR Convention. The declaration is exceptional in that it encompasses the entire mainstem and contributing catchments of the free-flowing Bita River. It is the first ‘Ramsar River’ in Colombia and one of very few sites in the world that encompass an entire free-flowing river catchment.

The Bita River with its extensive freshwater habitats, miriti palm and gallery forest ecosystems, is a treasure trove of biodiversity, hosting at least 1,474 species of plants, 254 fish, 30 amphibians, 59 reptiles, 201 birds and 63 mammals, including tapirs, deer and jaguars. Along its more than 600-kilometre course before it flows into the Orinoco, the river also sustains iconic species such as river dolphins, the blue arowana and the charapa turtle.

© JORGE GARCÍA / FUNDACIÓN OMACHA

The historic protection of the river is due in large part to the tireless efforts of the Alliance for the Bita, which comprises the Orinoco Foundation, Omacha
Foundation, La Pedregoza Corporation, WWF, Alexander von Humboldt Institute, the Vichada Provincial Government, Corporinoquía, the National Navy, National Parks and the Palmarito Foundation. The Alliance has worked with citizens and the government over recent years to define a sustainable future for the Bita River. Through a series of local consultations and studies, consensus was reached that the best option was protected status that allowed for sustainable use, such as fishing and tourism, which provide a significant source of income for local inhabitants.

Securing the sustainable future of the Bita River is particularly noteworthy
because free-flowing rivers — those that remain largely unobstructed by concrete infrastructure and that provide critical aquatic habitats — are particularly at risk. Across the globe, only about one third of large rivers remain free-flowing. But Colombia’s move was the second piece of good news for free-flowing rivers in Latin America in the past few weeks.

On World Environment Day on June 5, to ensure water security for its citizens
and nature, the Mexican government established Water Reserves in almost 300 river basins. At a ceremony in a shaded forest outside Mexico City, President, Enrique Peña Nieto signed 10 decrees creating these Water Reserves. Resilient and long-term, Water Reserves are anchored in policy and designed to ensure enough water remains in the system for it to function well into the future. Water Reserves are not water storage like a reservoir behind a dam. The amount of water reserved for nature is based on careful analysis of how much water is necessary to keep the river system healthy and functioning. It also respects the fact that people need to use water, to leverage the power of rivers.

With these decrees, Mexico set an example for other countries about how to do this well — by securing the water that is needed to sustain the system before rivers are at risk.

In total, the Water Reserves will protect water volumes in almost half of Mexico’s 756 river basins, representing 55 per cent of the country’s surface water. The new Water Reserves will also improve the health and protection of 82 Natural Protected Areas, 64 Ramsar wetlands and Mexico’s longest remaining free flowing river — the Usumacinta River. Winding through jungles, canyons, Mayan temples and wetlands, the Usumacinta is MesoAmerica’s largest and most biodiverse river, supporting jaguars, toucans, water birds, otters and manatees. It also plays an outsize role in indigenous communities whose activities depend on the prevalence of water-related ecosystem services.

© Thor Morales/WWF-Mexico

Around the world, the trend for rivers and the life that depends on them is
heading in the wrong direction. However, this month’s innovative river conservation decisions in Mexico and Colombia represent a game-changer.
These forward-thinking actions are designed to enhance water security and
underpin sustainable development. Now we just need more countries in Latin
America and around the world to follow suit.

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