More than 30 people from the Latin America and Caribbean region took part in a regional learning workshop, from February 11-15, on Application of Environmental Flows in River Basin Management, in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.
Environmental flows is the name given to the practice of ensuring that the amount of water in rivers that are regulated by dams or abstraction - and the timing of flows - meets the needs of both ecosystems and the people who depend on those ecosystems. There can be few more appropriate locations for such an event than Iguaçu, adjacent to the Itaipú dam, the world’s largest hydropower plant.
The workshop was organised by the IUCN Water Programme, in partnership with the IW:LEARN project of the Global Environment Facility and The Nature Conservancy. It was hosted by the dam operating company, Itaipu Binacional, and the Itaipu Technology Park. Participants came from across the region, including Caribbean islands, Central America, Andean countries and the Plata and Amazon basins in the heart of South America.
To use environmental flows, the needs of ecosystems have to be included when water in a river basin is allocated to different uses. Environmental flow for a river might therefore seem to be a problem for hydrologists or ecologists to solve. “You have to have some understanding of how ecosystems respond to changes in river flows,” explained Mark Smith, IUCN Water Management Advisor. “For example, you have to be able to decide what sort of flow regime is needed to make sure that fish catch in a wetland downstream of a dam is maintained. This shows, though, that environmental flows are important to both people and nature – so setting an environmental flow also involves economics, law, the participation of communities and the politics of water.”
The workshop was designed to allow participants to use these disciplines in practice. Case stories from Latin America and other regions of the world were used to explore different methods for making environmental flow assessments. Participants also developed negotiation scenarios for river basins, as a means of understanding how legal and institutional reform, and economic and social trade-offs, play vital roles in environmental flows.
“Environmental flows is about much more than how much water gets left in a river. It’s a tool for integrating rivers into sustainable development,” concluded participant Zuleika Pinzon, Executive Director of Fundacion Natura in Panama.
Zuleika and the other participants are aiming to make the workshop just the start. The group developed action plans for taking practical steps towards wider application of environmental flows in the region. As a first step, members are planning to collaborate through www.eflownet.org, the website of the global Environmental Flows Network, to support wider promotion and learning about environmental flows in the region.