Watersheds as a management units


Watersheds are areas delimited by a main river and its tributaries that flow into the same watercourse. They are important units to consider when integrating water resources management and environmental management.

In Brazil, the National Water Resources Policy (PNRH) of 1997 set forth the instruments to manage these elements at the federal level. In Watershed Committees (Comitês de Bacia Hidrográfica, or CBH), community representatives discuss and deliberate on the issue and share responsibilities with government authorities.


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The Rio Doce Watershed and the committees

Rios Piranga e do Carmo fundem-se para formar o Rio Doce

Foto: NITRO (2018)

Spanning 86,715 km2, the Rio Doce Watershed is considered the most important watershed in Brazil. About 3.2 million people live there, in 228 municipalities: 200 in the state of Minas Gerais and 28 in the state of Espírito Santo. Its resources are overseen by the Rio Doce Watershed Committee (CBH-Doce).

CBH-Doce is a multi-stakeholder organisation whose main objective is to promote programmes and policies for the preservation, recovery, and sustainable development of the watershed, in addition to working together with governments, users, and civil society. Each river has its own committee to ensure the efficient and participatory management of water resources.


CBH-Doce's role in the restoration process is key to ensuring the long-term continuity of the programmes carried out by the Renova Foundation after the disaster.

Mapa com os comitês da Bacia do Rio Doce. O CBH-Doce e os 11 comitês de bacias hidrográficas que integram a rede CBH-Doce Photo: IUCN\Painel do Rio Doce



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The Rio Doce Panel's view of the landscape approach

Aimorés, MG, 29 de agosto 2017. Fundação RENOVA. Baixo Rio Doce Programa socioambiental 27 - Programa de recuperação de nascentes.

Na foto, viveirista cuidando de mudas para replantio de vegetação nativa através da parceria com o Instituto Terra, de Lelia e Sebastião Salgado, que firmaram acordo para replantio de árvores e recuperação de nascentes ao longo do Rio Doce 

Imagem: Gustavo Baxter/NITRO/Histórias Visuais

Many efforts have been made since the Fundão Dam failure to minimise its impacts on the region. However, the Rio Doce does not exist in isolation, hence the importance of restoration efforts also encompassing the surrounding landscapes, including nearby coastal and marine areas.

To be successful, the initiative must consider all the environmental, social, financial, economic, and cultural aspects of this unique region. The so-called landscape approach is a way of thinking and operating when assessing the interrelations between ecological, economic, developmental, social, cultural, and political dimensions in a variety of scientific fields.

This approach offers a framework for balancing competing demands and developing policies and practices that allow for multiple land uses with the engagement of various stakeholders. The work encompasses the restoration of not only the river, but of the entire region affected by the disaster.


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Applying the landscape analysis to Rio Doce

11 de Setembro de 2017. Fundação RENOVA. Na imagem, auxiliares de obras assentando um talude em meio as ações de recuperação.

Imagem: Leo Drumond\NITRO\Histórias Visuais

In leading the Rio Doce restoration efforts, the Renova Foundation has adopted the landscape assessment approach to understand the relationships between the region and its residents. From this viewpoint, the landscape is the link between "time, space and people", an attempt to understand how this relationship has developed over time.


"Adopting a landscape approach in the restoration of the watershed areas affected by the disaster helps meet long-term planning needs and encourages the active engagement of affected parties."



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The source-to-sea approach

Foz do Rio Doce

Foto: NITRO (2018)

Suppose you are a scientist examining a map of the region where you live, with a river nearby. You would soon realise that you must consider not only the river and its banks, but also the entire watershed around it, including lakes, tributaries and aquifers, as well as the continental shelf and the nearby ocean. It is a complex system, but it is from this perspective that a source-to-sea approach must be considered.

This approach considers all the flows connecting these subsystems, from water to sediments, pollutants, biota, and ecosystem services. This is important because these elements are all interconnected in one way or another. For example, the water level in the river influences the amount of sediment transported into the sea, which, in turn, affects coastal ecosystems.

The source-to-sea approach seeks to cover these elements on a broad scale, and to understand how to manage them efficiently and ensure that the region where we live will remain healthy and sustainable long into the future.


Ilustração sistema fonte-mar Rio Doce Ilustração do sistema fonte-mar Photo: IUCN\Painel do Rio Doce



Segmentos fonte-mar Segmentos que compõem o sistema fonte-mar Photo: IUCN\Painel do Rio Doce



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Dam between Rio Pequeno and Lake Juparanã

Canal entre o Lago Juparanã e o Rio Pequeno. Na parte inferior, a conexão com o Rio Doce.

Foto: IUCN/Painel do Rio Doce

Lake Juparanã is the largest of several marginal lakes in the lower part of Rio Doce's coastal plain and is also connected to the main rivers. The renewal of its waters enriches the nutrients in the lakes and in the river.

Lake Juparanã is connected to the Rio Doce via Rio Pequeno. After the disaster, a temporary dam was built to keep the tailings from contaminating the lake.

Although it has increased water availability for irrigation, the dam has also interrupted natural flows between the river and the lake and affected the physical, chemical and biological processes that depend on such natural exchanges, thus impairing the transfer of sediments and organisms, affecting biodiversity and water quality, and causing local floods during rainy periods, with an effect on local communities.

The source-to-sea concept was first introduced by the Panel in its Issue Paper No. 3 (IP03 - Barbosa et al., 2019), in which Renova was urged to consider installing a permanent floodgate in Rio Pequeno to protect the waters of Lake Juparanã – an important source of drinking water for the lower Rio Doce region – from pollution coming from Rio Doce under flooding conditions.


Learn more about the Rio Doce Panel's recommendations for Lake Juparanã.



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Case study: the Vu-Gia-Thu Bon River watershed in Vietnam

Solid waste was discharged directly to the sea in Hong Trieu Dock, Duy Xuyen District, Quang Nam Province © IUCN Viet Nam

The Vu Gia-Thu Bon River - one of Vietnam's most important river basins, spanning more than 200 km of coastline and an area of 10,350 km2 -  had a pollution problem from the large volumes of plastics deposited in the river.

To address the problem, the Foundations for Source-to-Sea Management project, led by the Stockholm International Water Institute with support from IUCN Vietnam, decided to apply the source-to-sea approach to the region.

To that end, the project included the following actions:

  1. Identification of land-based sources of plastic pollution and an analysis of their impacts from source to sea. Initial investments to reduce pollution were devised based on this assessment.
  1. Involvement of both local and global stakeholders to address the plastic waste problem. This also included the identification of key players and a common understanding of the sources of pollution - both of which were helpful in producing joint solutions.
  1. Coherent governance, management, and financing were developed across all sectors and scales to identify the various government agencies in charge and highlight management gaps and overlaps.

This approach, coupled with cooperation across stakeholders, culminated in the strategies mentioned above and in a set of instruments established at different levels of management, and also helped identify additional needs and gaps.

Embed: https://vimeo.com/510322665 (Source: SIWI)


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Panel recommendations for an integrated adoption of the source-to-sea and landscape approaches

The Rio Doce Panel recommended that the Renova Foundation integrate the source-to-sea and landscape approaches into existing restoration strategies.

In doing so, all the stakeholders involved can gain a better understanding of the interconnections between governance, people and space, which would facilitate priority setting, resource allocation, and long-term planning.

Achieving this goal requires:

  • Integrating actions in the watershed (including water run-off) and also in the headwaters, all the way to the river mouth and adjacent coastal and marine areas.
  • Reflecting on the social, economic, cultural, and environmental characteristics of the entire watershed.
  • Having clear goals and collaborative, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral participation, as well as adaptive capacity management and an iterative process to address system complexities and prepare and implement plans for the future.

To restore the landscape and the source-to-sea system as a whole - thereby ensuring healthier and more sustainable conditions that before the disaster and contributing to the resilience of the natural environment and local livelihoods - a plan of action must be put in place that considers all of these factors.

The Renova Foundation and other stakeholder organisations must join forces to improve the resilience of the natural environment and of local livelihoods, and to ensure a better future for the Rio Doce region and its populations.


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Learn more about the Rio Doce Panel

Foto membros do Painel do Rio Doce

Foto: IUCN/Painel do Rio Doce