Orinoco River Basin Report Card
Water stress refers to the amount of water that is available in the basin versus the amount that is demanded by various users—from communities to businesses to nature.
Water availability in the Orinoco Basin is good, but as the region continues to develop in sub-basins, such as the upper Meta and the Arauca, we are seeing reduced water availability.
More demand for water in certain regions due to expanding livestock, agriculture, and mining activities are threatening the resource. To protect the balance of supply and demand when it comes to water, WWF recommends improving assessments of environmental impacts when it comes to agricultural development and sustainability.
Water quality is determined by measuring the amount of certain chemicals, elements, and other components in water.
Various development activities—especially mining—are the main pressures affecting water quality in the Orinoco basin. Mining for construction materials and limestone is the likely contributor to the poor water quality observed in the Upper Guaviare, which in turn affects downstream portions of the basin.
Growing urban areas and new infrastructure also put pressure on water quality.
We need to better monitor the basin, especially where we see oil and gas development expanding, and improve planning and impact mitigation when it comes to mining.
Habitats and the wildlife that live within them depend on various ecosystems physically connecting. Disconnection, often caused by human development, can reduce the ability of ecosystems to preform their functions—like cleaning water—and of animals to move between different habitats. Landscape fragmentation looks at how disconnected ecosystems have become, and therefore serves as a proxy for the loss of ecosystem functionality and animal movement between the rain forest, savannas, and wetlands in the basin.
Areas of major concern are upper portions of the Guaviare, and in particularly the Meta Basin.
WWF recommends improving the planning process for growth in agriculture and mining to help prevent habitat fragmentation, meaning that one swath of land is no longer connected to another.
Mining in Sensitive Ecosystems
This indicator examines the presence of legal mining in places like paramos (high altitude grasslands), mountain forests, riparian forests, wetlands, and flooded savannas. These ecosystems are crucial to the health of basin but sensitive to development impacts.
Mining and similar activities are some of the major and widespread threats. The type of activity often varies between sub-basins, but much of it occurs in these particularly fragile ecosystems, causing rippling impacts throughout the system. In particular, the grades received by the Meta, Arauca, Guaviare and Vichada Rivers already show the current significance of this threat.
Because report cards can track how mining activities are permitted to happen in such sensitive places, we can better understand how management decisions are impacting basin health. Improved planning processes and efforts to better understand the impacts of extractive activities are critical steps to addressing this issue and improving basin governance.
Naturally occurring fires have shaped parts of the Orinoco’s landscapes for thousands of years. However, fires from unnatural causes can have grave consequences for ecosystems. This indicator looks at the frequency of unnatural fires in each sub-basin of the Orinoco.
The Meta and Guaviare Basins show an increase in the number of fires, likely associated with clearing land for agricultural purposes.
As the climate changes and these landscapes become increasingly vulnerable, and as agriculture continues to expand, it will be important to strengthen sustainability studies for agricultural and other productive uses to include biodiversity and water resources.
Because people are also part of a basin, the report card includes indicators that reflect social, cultural, and health issues, such as the availability of nutritious food. Human weight data from the National “Survey of the Nutritional Status in Colombia” is currently being used as a proxy for nutrition in this report card.
Human nutrition in the Orinoco Basin is an issue of concern. The Atabapo, Inirida, and upper Meta Basins received the worst scores. In some cases this is due to changes in indigenous traditions or low soil fertility, whereas elsewhere it reflects low availability of fish as a food supply.
Sustainable food production should be a priority for development in these regions.
Number of River Dolphins
River dolphins are listed as a vulnerable species in Colombia, and the health of these animals is one indicator for the overall health of the basins where they live.
Dolphin populations in Bita and Guaviare are healthy. Unfortunately, we are seeing new threats from rapid development in the Meta, and infrastructure and mining activities are impacting populations in the Arauca.
Efforts should be made in the Arauca to improve connectivity—by ensuring roads and other development don’t impact the river, for example—to ensure safe passage for dolphins.. Additional study and data collection is also required to fill in missing dolphin information for the Inírida, Tomo, Tuparro, and Vichada Rivers.
In fact, WWF recommends improved study and data collection for biodiversity at large in the basin in the coming years. Dolphins were chosen as an indicator in the Orinoco because we know the most about this species, but the basin is so biodiverse we don’t even know what we don’t know.