The Amazon Waters Initiative seeks to promote a vision of the Amazon Basin, in which the region is valued not just for its rich tropical forests and its importance for carbon storage, but for its role as the world’s greatest and most diverse freshwater system.
We will have achieved this vision when:
The Amazon Basin is the largest tropical wilderness in the world, the most biologically diverse place on Earth, and home to hundreds of indigenous peoples and other traditional cultures. It is also the largest freshwater system in the world, accounting for 15% of the freshwater discharge into global oceans — six times larger than the second most important system (which is the Congo River). The Amazon has more than 2,400 species of fish, more than found in any other river basin, and some of these fish make the longest freshwater fish migrations in the world (4000+km, one way). Yet when many people think of the Amazon, they envision only the great rainforest threatened by colonization, roads, cattle ranches, and plantations, whose loss and degradation has global consequences. Rarely do non-Amazonian people visualize this immense system from the perspective of water flowing through it. Once thought to cover a mere 4% of the Amazon, our science now shows that flooded forests, rivers, lakes and other wetlands cover a vast 14% of the basin. These aquatic ecosystems are an integral part of life in Amazonia, critical not only to biodiversity but also for sustaining major fisheries, supplying domestic water, providing a vast transportation network and other aquatic resources for 30 million Amazonian residents, including 1.4 million indigenous people.
Conservation efforts today in the Amazon Basin largely focus on creating and strengthening management of 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 traditional 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. To address these challenges, conservation and management efforts must now focus on waters, wetlands and basins and important resources such as fisheries, and should be based on integrated river basin management.
The integrity of the Amazon’s highly productive and immensely valuable wetland ecosystems is challenged for three primary reasons, and the pace and scale of these threats require urgent action now to respond while there is still time.
Unmanaged fisheries. The highly productive fisheries of the Basin are not managed at the appropriate scale. 80% 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, threatening one of the most important protein sources in the Amazon.
Infrastructure. Existing or planned infrastructure development impacts are poorly understood, including those from hydroelectric dams, roads, waterways, mining and oil and gas extraction, and if left unmitigated risk water quality and quantity, nutrient and sediment cycles, and even the normal annual flooding regime over vast areas, with unpredictable consequences. 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 human settlements.
Climate Change. Climate change is already and will continue to affect the Amazon’s seasonal flood cycle. Climate change models indicate that these disruptions will lead to large-scale changes in wetlands – including flooded forests – and their biodiversity, including fish species on which fisheries and ultimately food security depend. 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. Hundreds of thousands rural people actually live in or directly adjacent to 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.
Years of research and analysis by a multinational, multidisciplinary, and multi-institutional team of scientists and practitioners has yielded a new scientific understanding of the Amazon based in an unprecedented basin-wide analysis of freshwater ecosystems. The Amazon Waters Initiative has thus provided us with a strong scientific foundation, and we are now in a position to suggest management and policy pathways for large-scale conservation of the great river system. Our aim is to build a broad coalition of Amazonian and International partners in support of this agenda.
Within the framework of integrated river basin management, this will require action in three areas:
Amazon wetlands, including flooded forests and the confluence of whitewater with blackwater or clearwater rivers, are important areas for fish production and reproduction. Moreover, Amazon wetlands are highly biodiverse areas critical for other wildlife and to the livelihoods of millions of people who live in or near Amazon wetlands. These areas should therefore be prioritized in regional fisheries management and conservation initiatives. Specific measures needed include identifying the most critical wetlands to ensure ecological connectivity in the Amazon basin, strengthening management of existing protected areas and indigenous territories that include or overlap with critical wetlands, creation of new conservation units to conserve critical unprotected wetlands, and developing tools to support wetland conservation options for priority wetlands outside of protected areas or indigenous territories.
The highly productive fisheries of the basin are currently not managed at the necessary scale. Over 90% of commercial fish catch takes place in the Amazon River Main Stem and western sub-basins (see Fisheries Region map above), but no coordinated management regimes address fisheries across these jurisdictions.. As a result, unsustainable commercial and subsistence fishing is the norm. We propose that fisheries management regulations and agreements are needed at three scales: (a) basin-wide scale for long-distance migratory catfish; (b) state and sub-basin level management for fish with smaller but still long migration ranges; and (c) local scale focused on large floodplain areas that are also critical nurseries for migratory and non-migratory species.
The unprecedented levels of investment planned in infrastructure and extractive industries in the Amazon will have devastating effects on wetlands and fisheries if commitments are not made to minimize the environmental impacts of these projects. Even more so if compounded whit the climate change’s effect on the Amazon’s seasonal flood cycle. It is critical to examine the tradeoffs inherent in potentially competing priorities such as electricity generation, commodity production, transportation connectivity, water quality and quantity, food security, and conservation. With further analysis, we can inform decisions about where best to locate development investments, possible mitigation options, and appropriate risk management policies. Throughout the basin, it is important to promote the adoption of international standards for mitigation hierarchy and biodiversity offsets principles in designing and approving infrastructure and extractive industry projects, to strengthen national policy and regulatory frameworks so that they incorporate these standards, and to strengthen technical, scientific, administrative, and financial capacities to implement and enforce them.
The only way to achieve the vision of the Amazon Waters Initiative is to work across myriad borders – the borders of the river basins themselves, the fluid borders of the riverbanks, the borders of protected areas, the borders of nations and the borders of each institution working in this space. The Amazon Waters Initiative is a call to action to conceptualize the Amazon aquatic ecosystem as a whole. As WCS, we are committed to conserve the Amazon’s waters, wetlands, and wildlife, including fish and other aquatic biodiversity on which humans depend. But this is not our initiative alone. With a large number of research partners, we have contributed the scientific basis of the Initiative, but success depends on many other actors. Our aim is to build a broad coalition of Amazonian and international partners from local and national government agencies, international cooperation bodies, and civil society organizations, to ensure that management and policy steps are taken to ensure the integrity of this vast and interconnected river system.
The message of Amazon Waters is clear: we must see the Amazon from the perspective of its waters, its wetlands, and its wildlife – including fish and all the biodiversity that depend on aquatic ecosystems, and we must respond to the conservation and development challenges of the Amazon at a scale capable of maintaining the connectivity of the entire system. This perspective on the Amazon – this view of the Amazon as a great freshwater system to be valued, conserved, and managed as such – must stand alongside the discourse of the Amazon as a great tropical forest as an equally valid, equally relevant, and equally urgent framework for conservation action.