Integrated River Basin Management: Key to a Balanced Conservation and Development Strategy
The Amazon’s highly productive and immensely valuable wetland ecosystems are under threat for three primary reasons.
First, the highly productive fisheries of the Basin are not managed at the appropriate scale. Eighty percent of fish landings are migratory species whose life history takes them between various sub-basins and countries and, in some cases, from the Amazon River estuary to Andean headwaters more than 4,000 km upstream. Yet no fisheries management system operates at a basin-wide scale, and unsustainable commercial and subsistence fishing is the norm.
Second, infrastructure development, including hydroelectric dams, roads, waterways and the infrastructure of mining and oil and gas extraction, risk altering normal flood regimes and the flow of critical nutrients and sediments across the entire basin. These flows are essential to the productivity of wetland forests and the fish and other animals that feed in them during high water periods. They are also essential to wild fruit production, floodplain agriculture, river transport and to human settlements in wetlands.
Third, climate change is and will affect the Amazon’s seasonal flood cycle. Climate change models indicate that these changes will augment the well-known risks of deforestation and land cover change. Together with infrastructure, these impacts are likely to exacerbate more extreme and less predictable flood pulses that would impact wetland habitats, fish migrations, and aquatic biodiversity. As many as 500,000 rural people actually live in wetland areas that would be directly affected by these major hydrological changes, in addition to the millions of urban residents whose livelihoods depend less directly on the great river system.
The vast size of the Amazon Basin, the interlocking relationships among uplands and wetlands, and the flow of water through wetlands from the Andes to the Atlantic strongly suggest that, to be effective, conservation actions must be informed by scientific analysis and synthesis of information at large enough scales as to be capable of capturing these ecological complexities. One of the principal telltales of the complex processes involved and their far-flung scale is fish migrations, where hydrological cycles, water quality and quantity and regional weather patterns influence the reproductive success of these valuable species.
Conservation approaches today in the Amazon Basin focus on creating and strengthening protected areas and indigenous territories. A half century of such efforts have been vital to secure forested landscapes and provide tenure and access to resources for indigenous peoples, but they have done little to protect the Basin’s aquatic systems, provide for the long-term sustainability of their natural resources, or ensure Basin-wide connectivity. Focusing now on interventions that address these issues is critical.
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