Although Latin America has 31% of the planet’s freshwater sources, by 2050 it will be one of the most affected regions by climate change, with more than a billion people in cities without access to this vital resource, according to the World Bank. The Amazon Basin represents about 20% of the global supply of fresh water; however, the population does not have an adequate and sufficient supply of drinking water in some areas. These are just a couple of examples that demonstrate the importance of this resource for the life of all species, including humans. These pieces of data have raised concern about the future availability of water, but it is also as a call (or an invitation) to understand (its nature, cycles, and dynamics or its relationship with forests, soils, or fish), value, and protect it.
“The blood of the Earth”
In Pre-Columbian America, water was considered “the blood of the Earth” by indigenous peoples, a deity that was worshiped because it gave healing, and an element that determined how agriculture, fishing, trade, or transportation was carried out across rivers. Water was also the element from which the territory was organized. The Zenúes (Colombian Caribbean) or the Kichwa (Peruvian Amazon), for example, created irrigation and hydraulic systems with channels and drains that followed and responded to the natural dynamics of water both in rain and drought times. However, this form of organization changed with the adoption of ways of using and managing water, forests, and land that were alien to geography, climate, biodiversity, or, especially, the natural dynamics of water in a territory like Latin America.
Water is a living being and we have forgotten that. We have also forgotten the sacredness that it had for our ancestors. Now we think of water as just another resource, whose availability is unlimited and infinite. Water is taken for granted. We open the faucet and water comes out for drinking or cooking, washing clothes, taking a bath, or watering the plants. In other cases, people take it from the river (or go to the river) to get their water.
Freshwater habitats (rivers, lakes, lagoons, springs, streams, and reservoirs) are a microworld with very abundant biodiversity. According to the UICN,
they cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface but are home to more than 126,000 known species of animals and approximately 2,600 macrophytic plants (those living in flooded soils, rivers, or lakes). It means that in a very small (minimal) area of the Earth there is a great richness and diversity of species (10% of the species known so far). However, some practices put species (“freshwater species are threatened with extinction, probably more than marine and terrestrial species,” says the IUCN), and water availability for our consumption at risk: pollution by dumping garbage, industrial waste, or sewage into natural water streams, high water consumption added to population growth, increased industrial activities, expansion of soils for agriculture and livestock or waste, both in the urban and rural areas, are some of them.
Added to this is climate change, which is arguably the breaking point in this call to change the way we are related to water. In several regions of the planet, it has been proven that droughts are increasingly severe due to climate change, thus decreasing the quantity and quality of water and resources linked to it such as fishing, one of the main livelihoods of many communities that depend on the resources of freshwater ecosystems. According to the World Resources Institute, water scarcity, is a latent reality in cities such as Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Mexico City, London, and Santiago, Chile.
Toward a new understanding
Several aspects help us understand the importance of freshwater, and therefore the importance of its care and conservation:
– It has no substitutes, it is essential for life as it is the easiest of all forms of water (marine, glacier, for example) to consume by living beings: animals, plants, and humans.
– It is associated with different types of ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, lagoons, springs, streams, etc., which provide numerous goods and services such as food, medicinal plants, and construction materials, essential for hundreds of human populations in the world.
-It is also associated with forests: according to the FAO, about 75% of freshwater consumed around the world, including in large cities, comes from forested areas.
-It is mobile, as it travels through different landscapes or ecosystems that define its characteristics.Lagoons and lakes in the northern hemisphere are very different from those in the tropical regions; this also implies differences in the species of animals, vegetation, as well as their life cycles.
-It follows a cycle: it is extracted from rivers, reservoirs, wells, and springs to reach our homes through supply networks.The water we use (containing soap or oil waste, for example) goes back to nature, but not before going through purification processes. However, in many Latin American countries, a large part of the wastewater does not undergo any treatment.
–Water sources connect landscapes, ecosystems, biodiversity, and people at regional levels, beyond political boundaries. If this connectivity is interrupted, it opens the way for deterioration and the loss of natural wealth, such as the one we are currently experiencing.
Realizing freshwater as a vital and irreplaceable resource, and perhaps re-envisioning it as a sacred resource is the first step to start thinking about its safeguard. It is necessary to understand that its availability and quality depend on how we use and take advantage of it in the face of the challenges that arise. Water is a priority that is increasingly being considered in land use planning under an integrated management approach that seeks the sustainability of this resource (a topic that we will discuss shortly hereafter).
Written by Carolina Obregón Sánchez
- Silvia López Casas, PhD. in Biology from the University of Antioquia and researcher in fish ecology and freshwater ecosystems.
- Significados del agua para la comunidad indígena Fakcha Llakta, Canton Otavalo, Ecuador. Carmen Amelia Trujillo, José Alí Moncada, Jesús R. Aranguren y Kennedy R. Lomas. Ambiente & Sociedade, 2018.
- El País, América Latina: la región con más agua, la más castigada por la sed, Julio César Casma, 13 de mayo de 2015
- BBC World Service. ¿Cuán probable es que tu país sufra escasez de agua? Pablo Uchoa, 6 agosto de 2019.