New Tools to Visualize The Amazon

September 5, 2016

By Natalie Alm
September 5, 2016

[NOTE: This originally appeared in a series of blogs by WCS staff at the IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place September 1–10 in Honolulu, Hawaii. See the original on Medium here.]

The Amazon Waters Initiative values the Amazon for its role as the world’s greatest and most diverse freshwater system. Credit: Walter Wust.

When you close your eyes and think of the Amazon, what do you see?

For many people, the first thing that jumps into their head is the rainforest — complete with a mental image of a thick treetop canopy, lush foliage, and exotic wildlife, from furry caterpillars to jaguars.

But the Amazon is also a watershed, and the world’s largest freshwater system in the world. It accounts for one-sixth of all the freshwater flowing into the planet’s oceans, more than the six next largest rivers combined. The Amazon Basin covers almost 40 percent of South America across seven countries’ borders. Its resources provide more than 30 million inhabitants, including almost 400 diverse indigenous groups, with food and water, transportation, and livelihoods.

Fish market in Iquitos, Peru. Credit: Pablo Puertas/WCS.

WCS has been working in the Amazon region for more than 40 years and our staff can testify to the incredible biodiversity, cultural heritage, and beauty of the region. Yet we have encountered numerous challenges in doing conservation work in such an interconnected system, where management must be coordinated basin-wide.

The dorado fish, for example, is emblematic of the highly interconnected nature of the Amazon watershed. It travels thousands of miles up and down the continent’s river systems each year in one of the longest freshwater fish migrations in the world.

To further this conceptualization of the Amazon through its water, we launched the Amazon Waters Initiative (AWI), a partnership that promotes a vision of the Amazon Basin in which the region is valued not just for its tropical forests and importance for carbon storage and biodiversity, but also for its role as the world’s greatest and most diverse freshwater system.

 
The Amazon watershed accounts for one-sixth of all the freshwater flowing into the planet’s oceans. Credit: Walter Wust.

AWI recognizes the many threats to the Amazon’s ecosystems, including unmanaged fisheries, habitat destruction, ill-planned infrastructure, and climate change. It works actively to maintain the integrity of this vast, interconnected, and dynamic system.

Coordinating conservation actions at the basin level is extremely challenging, as it involves numerous stakeholders across several countries. One of the biggest challenges is a lack of an adequate spatial model for integrating data across the basin. To help address this issue, a team of scientists who form part of AWI have recently made available a new database to better visualize, and therefore manage, the Amazon Basin through improved spatial analysis.

The Amazon Aquatic Ecosystem Spatial Framework mapping tool incorporates hydrological elements of the Amazon freshwater system that were not previously included in existing spatial products to create a new scalable framework for classifying the rivers, estuaries, and basins that make up the broader Amazon Basin.

 
A new scalable tool creates a classification framework for the rivers, estuaries, and basins that make up the broader Amazon Basin. Graphic courtesy WCS.

The tool, available in any GIS software, is divided into two parts: one with a hierarchical classification of seven levels of basins and another for the drainage network. It can answer questions on management and monitoring, from the relationship between habitat and fish production to species analysis according to their use of the rivers.

The tool could be used by a researcher to identify black water or clear water rivers that are important for fish biology; by a fisheries manager to better protect the spaces important to its fish species; by an urban planner to identify areas at risk of floods near towns and cities; or by a policymaker to improve decision-making on the placement of infrastructure projects, especially in the face of climate change.

We presented the framework this weekend at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, and a panel of experts and conservation leaders provided great feedback on its implementation. Multilateral financial institutions praised the vision of open-access data and tools.

 
The Amazon basin provides food, water, transportation, and livelihoods to more than 30 million inhabitants, including almost 400 diverse indigenous groups. Credit: Walter Wust.

At the end of the event, WCS president and CEO Cristián Samper highlighted three key points: the power of integrated, widely available data; the importance of addressing conservation challenges at the right scales; and the need to translate academic work into real-world scenarios and useful materials for decision makers and civil society to better inform discussions and decisions.

What potential do you see in a mapping tool for the Amazon? Play around with AWI’s and let us know what you think!

Learn more about AWI at our website or follow us on Twitter and Facebookwith the hashtag #AguasAmazónicas.