What's a river worth?

In Colombia’s portion of the Orinoco river basin, a cross section of society converges to assess a river’s health

Early in the morning, the Orinoco River looks more like a mirror than a bustling lifeline. Soft pinks and purples hang from wispy clouds, turning two boats’ joint wake into a riffling painter’s palette. The expedition members—which include a local boat captain, a Colombian conservationist, a US-based academic, and a water resources engineer from WWF—cling to the metal rims of their vessels, staring intensely at the horizon.

Pffft! A soft mist spurts into the air, as a pinkish-gray river dolphin surfaces, poking its elongated snout and smooth head out of the water. Appraising its surroundings with beady black eyes, it takes in the human visitors floating nearby before disappearing back beneath the opaque waters. Several tail fins follow, slapping the river’s surface with a splash.

“They’re hunting,” says Sindy Martinez Callejas, the conservationist guiding the boats on behalf of the Omacha Foundation, an environmental nonprofit working throughout Colombia. She points to one with notches in its fin. “That one was caught in a boat motor, which gave him those unique scars.”

The team this morning is identifying, documenting, and monitoring river dolphins, freshwater turtles, manatees, crocodiles, fish, and myriad other indicators of the river’s health. Martinez Callejas, in particular, is sharing insight on the dolphins and other freshwater species to help inform a new river basin “report card”—an assessment of the current state of the Orinoco basin.

Report cards are a proven conservation tool, and their development has traditionally been led by external experts. In the Orinoco basin, the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and WWF are supporting a different take on report cards by creating a process that’s locally led. The result will contribute to the development of an open-source model that can be adopted by river basin inhabitants and managers almost anywhere in the world.

Orinoco River WWF Sarah Freeman

Over time, the process will bring together hundreds of stakeholders in targeted river basins to collaboratively and scientifically assess the condition of their shared resources. In addition to examining species diversity, the team building the Orinoco report card will look at fisheries, water quality, upstream agriculture, development pressures, river connectivity, ecotourism, and more—all toward developing an open, integrated way to publicly report on river basin health.

Tracking biodiversity like river dolphins is a key component, Martinez Callejas explains. “If there are dolphin populations in a river, it is because that river has good food, good habitat, and good environmental conditions for life,” she says. “In other words, dolphins let us know if there is good fishing, good water flow, good quality of water, and a healthy freshwater ecosystem overall.”

“And of course people need all these things, too,” adds Sarah Freeman, WWF’s water resources engineer, “for water supply, food, and energy.”

For boat captain Jacinto Teran, a fisherman who now also promotes dolphin-watching tours, vibrant dolphin populations are good for business.

And for Simon Costanzo, a scientist with UMCES, the dolphins are just one piece of a transparent, people-driven process to protect this river—and others—that offer ecological and economic wealth. Once a river’s health is clearly articulated, he believes, more people will take action to sustainably manage its well-being. And that in turn benefits all those who depend on what the river provides.

Around the bend, in the bustling port town of Puerto Carreño, dolphins are far from the thoughts of the fishermen gathered at the water’s edge. The men move easily in the pre-dawn light, readying their nets and calling out wisecracks from boat to boat. Among the bustle, 65-year-old lifelong fisherman Clímaco Unda Barrios prepares his small wooden motorboat, occasionally allowing one of the jokes to tease a smile from his weathered face. After setting off through the narrow channels of a nearby lagoon, he joins dozens of men in rubber boots, sloshing through thigh-high water, dragging large green fishing nets. From time to time they pause to examine their catch, picking out tiny, jumping jewels with dirty fingers.

These bright, colorful, “ornamental” fish from marshlands along the river’s edge are captured alive and stored in water-filled plastic grocery bags until the fishers reach shore. Sold to bulk buyers, they can be shipped by air as far away as the United States or Japan, involuntarily trading their wild habitat for a starring role in a distant fish tank. And the men who caught them make enough to sustain their families through a combination of selling and eating their catch—for now.

A group from Puerto Carreño collects ornamental fish from the shallows for the aquarium trade.

“Fishing has given me the chance to educate my children—everything I have, I got from fishing,” says Unda Barrios. Like most of his colleagues, he says he could never do anything else. Which is why changes in fish populations are cause for action.

“People say that these days there’s fewer arowana, fewer needlefish, but they don’t know why,” he says, guessing the rise in agriculture might be a reason. He remembers when there used to be lots of fish in sections of the river that became lifeless after the cotton farmers moved in. Other fishermen trade anecdotes about smaller catches and blame bitter-tasting fish on farmers upriver dumping chemicals into the water—but they have little data about environmental damage, and few tools to galvanize their neighbors to take conservation seriously.

“That’s where the report cards can come in,” Freeman explains. “We are trying to provide information in a way that’s very digestible, very understandable for people. Information is power, so report cards can become a tool for communities to use to put pressure on their leaders, or ask for money to actually do something that’s going to make a difference in their lives.”

Unda Barrios is skeptical of interventions by environmental groups, but says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect the river. He also acknowledges that his community doesn’t really know if the river is healthy or not, and that if it’s not healthy, he’s not sure what can be done. So, he admits, the basin report card holds some appeal.

“We’ve seen report cards drive change,” says Bill Dennison, Costanzo’s colleague and a professor (and vice president for science application) at UMCES, which has been creating report cards around the world for over 10 years. For him, report cards ought to function like a car’s dashboard. While indicators like speed don’t offer a complete diagnostic of a car, they can provide lots of clues.

“By revealing information in a way everyone can understand, the report card can help us engage local communities that do not believe there is currently a challenge, and decision-makers who have the authority to act, and together we can generate a responsible and conscious way to manage and use the river and its species.”

Sarah Freeman
WWF Water Resources Engineer

“So, what we’re trying to do is stock those dashboards so that anyone, no matter their expertise, can look down and say, ‘Oh, our water quality is improving, therefore that management action must be working.’ Or, ‘It’s degrading and oh my goodness, what are we going to do? What’s the matter? Why is there a problem?’—so that you can adjust accordingly.”

Costanzo agrees, and reiterates how integral the community engagement piece is to a report card’s success. Their process gathers local stakeholders—from fishers and farmers to conservationists, academics, and policymakers—to identify why their river is important to them, what it means for the river to be healthy, and what data is available to track health over time. It forces people on separate sides of environmental issues to come together, often for the first time.

“What I find most satisfying is getting all those stakeholders in a room,” he says. “There are often people who have never spoken to each other, or are on opposite sides of the argument—and then they are forced to watch and hear each other’s point of view.”

Report cards not only give governments, local communities, and other stakeholders access to the same information, says WWF freshwater program director Karin Krchnak, they help head off problems like corruption. That’s part of why WWF is investing in this project: Evidence from places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Chesapeake Bay watershed shows how the delivery of concise, accessible, and sometimes scary data points has painted a clear picture for people to rally around.

“Report cards can create a platform where we can actually drive policy change transparently and not have decisions made behind closed doors or catering to special interests. I’ve worked on water governance for most of my career,” Krchnak adds, “and I believe that if every basin had a report card, we wouldn’t be dealing with water problems the same way we are today.”

But despite the success of report cards, they have not yet been widely adopted. “People want a better understanding and more transparency, and a report card may be the right tool for achieving these ends,” says Costanzo, “but for many people, figuring out how to create one for themselves is a major hurdle. There currently is no published template to help local stakeholders create their own report cards with the right buy-in on the ground and credibility at the global level.”

Costanzo has pinpointed the reason UMCES and WWF are working together—to package and share the report card development process in an open, inclusive way. Through this partnership, both organizations hope to empower local stakeholders to develop reliable, efficient, and effective report cards in their basins, thus dramatically improving how water is managed around the world. Their first stop: Colombia’s Orinoco basin, where the 1,330-mile river cuts a shimmering border between Colombia and Venezuela. The data available so far is being used to determine “whether the basin is entering a period of sickness,” says José Saulo Usma, freshwater program coordinator for WWF-Colombia, “and if it’s threatened, we think there’s still time to maintain or improve the river’s health.”

“The basin report card,” he continues, “will give us the opportunity to measure quantitatively, with the variables we already have, the health of the river. What are the environmental, social, and economic costs of the development that we’ll see here?”

Because development is coming. “This area has been slated by the government as a promised land for development, so we know that the pressures are going to increase,” WWF’s Freeman says. “If we can start raising awareness of that now and create a dialogue—an avenue by which people can have their ideas of what’s going on actually informed by science—this should, in the end, help create a better basis for sustainable development in the basin.”

What Makes a Basin Scorecard Work?

By improving and open-sourcing the existing report card development process, WWF and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science seek to help local stakeholders create reliable, efficient, and effective report cards in their home river basins, thus dramatically improving how water is managed around the world. The model for this global process is being tested in the Colombian portion of the Orinoco River basin.

The first three workshops were held in three critical sub-basins of the Orinoco—the Meta, Bita, and Guaviare—each of which faces very different challenges. By working with a host of partners to gather diverse stakeholders; solicit local insight on why the river is important to each of them; and ground-truth those insights through field expeditions, data review, and additional research, the team developed the following preliminary indicators for the report card to measure.

Orinoco basin health indicators

Cultural Indicators

  • Number of traditional cultural events
  • Number of schools with ethnic education
  • Areas of natural coverage in indigenous reservations compared to total size of the reservation

Ecosystem Indicators

  • Area and frequency of fires
  • Supply of ecosystem services
  • Change in land use (terrestrial and aquatic)
  • Number of corridors connecting terrestrial ecosystems

Human Use

  • Demand for water resources
  • Amount of land under agricultural use
  • Percentage of people with access to potable water
  • Number of passengers using river transport
  • Nutrition indicators and food security


  • Number of complaints of illegal activity
  • Number of fishing seizures that have been made
  • Budget allocated to river/ecosystem management
  • Area with mining titles (coinciding with areas of high ecological sensitivity)
  • Number of Community Action Boards with legal power


  • Biodiversity indicator
  • Number of threatened species (both flora and fauna)
  • Species richness
  • Types and volume of fish


  • Number of formalized tour operators
  • Number and state of sites of nature tourism

Water Quality

  • Water quality

We are now exploring the additional sub-basins that compromise the Colombian Orinoco, which will give us a more complete picture of the river's health.

For Dexter Dombro, a Canadian ex-lawyer now living outside of Puerto Carreño, the report card could play a crucial role in his dream of sustainable development in the area. In 2007, Dombro and a group of investors bought around 7,000 acres on the edge of one of the Orinoco’s tributaries to create a nature reserve. As a participant in the basin report card workshops, Dombro shared his observations of the area’s challenges with over 40 other local stakeholders.

“There’s always a problem of having concise and intelligible information available, whether it’s for public authorities or whether it’s for citizens,” says Dombro. “When citizens are confronted with the real health of something, it does change the perceptions, and it also forces the hand of government because when you see something as a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ on the report card, the government and the community are going to realize they are in deep trouble—especially if authorities and local stakeholders don’t react.”

William Espinosa, a resident of San José del Guaviare who also participated in one of the workshops, echoed how crucial both citizens and the government are to the project’s success.

“The basin report card methodology is very interesting because all the actors have the opportunity to participate, comment, and give their point of view,” he says. “Usually, when the community has the opportunity to participate in such events, they feel included and more interested, but then the downside is that policymakers often don’t support these initiatives. We believe that the policymakers have to be immersed in these processes so they also are interested. Therefore, we hope that on this occasion they take into account all that we have done, because we all are part of it.”

For Luis Alfonso Escobar Trujillo, technical director of integral water resource management for Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, the linkages are clear. “The Orinoco basin represents significant opportunities for the environment and development both,” he says from his office in Bogotá. “The policy for the management of water resources in Colombia is intended to solve the problems associated with water, promote water-use efficiency, and support conservation of freshwater as a natural wealth for the well-being of future generations. The report card process is important to us since it is a remarkable facilitator for national water policy.”

Some basin report card participants have already seen how national policy can lead to benefits on the ground. Delio Suarez is an indigenous leader who hails from Inírida, where the Orinoco and three other rivers mix. Called the Complejo de Humedales de la Estrella Fluvial Inírida, Colombia’s “Star of the South” landscape includes wetlands rich with ornamental fish, and is home to over 15 independent tribes. In 2014, the government of Colombia declared the area a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, protecting it from local threats. But it still faces challenges from upstream development, which pollutes the rivers and threatens Suarez’s people.

“The river is the main source of life for all animals, plants, and humans,” he says. “I am convinced that the [basin report card] process can generate more awareness about basin preservation. The methodology is very practical and serves to involve people effectively.” Then, in a remark that echoes the other consistent refrain about the process, he adds, “Now the most important thing is that the results can be implemented.”

So while creating the report card has already built relationships, awareness, and the foundation for action, the report card itself will be the ultimate catalyst, says Freeman. “By revealing information in a way everyone can understand,” she explains, “the report card can help us engage local communities that do not believe there is currently a challenge, and decision-makers who have the authority to act, and together we can generate a responsible and conscious way to manage and use the river and its species.”

The captain, the conservationist, and the report card facilitators all agree on one thing: This process, and the final product it provides, might just offer proof that the government, the people of Puerto Carreño, and the dolphins can thrive together.

“If it can show that one thing influences another—for example, that water quality influences the fisheries, the communities’ water supply, the dolphin population, the turtle populations, and so on—and if it helps the fishermen go from just fishing for money to caring for the environment and good management of the river,” Martinez Callejas says, as one hand trails in the cool water, “then this basin report card will be a very good tool.”

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