Looking down on the Earth from above, it makes intuitive sense to manage our watersheds. From this birds-eye view, we can easily see how landscapes are linked by the flow of water and why activities upstream shape what happens below.
But our political maps of the planet often don’t align with natural landscapes. Bodies of water are frequently dissected by district, state, and national boundaries; even within these divisions, different parts of the system are often governed by different ministries and departments. These disconnects can cause decision-makers to lose sight of the impacts of activities in one area on people and species elsewhere.
Over the past decade, perspectives – and politics – in this arena have begun to embrace more integrated approaches. For example, in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Whanganui river catchment gained the rights of legal personhood in 2017, enshrining its management as an ‘indivisible and living whole’; Colombia’s Atrato River was granted the same soon after.
A multidisciplinary project ‘Resilient rivers: counting fish from forests for food security’ by the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), WorldFish and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), sought to raise the profile of integrated management and watershed-based approaches across the globe, with a focus on three foundational elements – forests, freshwater, and fish.
These elements interact in important ways. Forests stabilize slopes and river banks, provide food and habitats for fish, and regulate local temperatures. Fish provide food and nutrition security for many rural communities, offering a significant source of protein and micronutrients, as well as livelihood opportunities. They also supply nutrients that feed the forests when they die, and some even promote biodiversity by eating forest fruits and dispersing their seeds.
This isn’t necessarily news to riparian communities. “Local people tend to understand these linkages between forestry and fisheries,” said Ashley Steel, a forest officer at FAO who is co-leading the project. “But the importance of these connections often seems to get lost as you go up into higher-level planning.”
CIFOR-ICRAF scientists have been doing research for a number of years on the interactions between forests and fish in the tropics, but the project was their first collaboration with WorldFish on the topic. The FAO team, for its part, included two co-leaders, one each from the forestry and fisheries divisions. “This forest-fisheries structure was essential, as it provides a model for the type of cross-sectoral collaboration that the project is advocating,” said Amy Ickowitz, the CIFOR-ICRAF lead scientist for Resilient Rivers.
The project sought to inspire communities and policymakers around the world to work at the watershed scale. One of its components is development of a free, open-access e-learning course. Launched during a side event at the UN 2023 Water Conference on March 29 this year, it coaches students through understanding watersheds as integrated systems; looks at how forests, freshwater, and fish are interlinked and at how best to monitor each facet; and then brings all of the information together to develop a watershed management plan. Project work in the Upper Kafue River watershed, one of the headwaters of the Zambezi in Zambia, offers a convincing case study of how this can be done.
Case study: the Upper Kafue River Watershed
The Kafue River begins as a trickle in shallow, marshy wetlands surrounded by the miombo woodlands that characterize many southern African landscapes. Along its length, riparian communities catch fish to feed their families and sell for income. Whilst the upper reaches remain free-flowing, dams and copper mines complicate its passage further downstream.
But this watershed is losing its trees in some areas. As the human population grows, trees are increasingly axed for firewood and charcoal production – and to clear space for agriculture. This impacts the health of the watershed’s diverse freshwater ecosystems. “The trees contribute a lot to the wellbeing of these rivers,” said Zambian Forestry Department officer Richard Chongo, in a video about the project. “The leaves that fall into the rivers provide food for the aquatic animals that are found there, and the trees also stabilize the riverbanks because of the roots that are holding on to the soil.”
Runoff from farming also clouds up the freshwater and impacts its animal and plant life. “Over the years, I’ve seen some changes happening in the quality and colour of the water,” said Chongo. “There’s a lot of sedimentation because of the farmers that are cultivating across the river.”
And that affects local communities. “In the past, we used to get a lot of fish from our rivers,” said fisherwoman Vailet Lungu. “People used to eat lots of fish, and others used to sell it. But now there is no fish to talk about, except a few for consumption.” Eighty-nine percent of surveyed community members described a reduction in fish consumption over the past decade.
Some measures have already been put in place to mitigate damage. An annual fishing ban from December to March helps keep fish populations healthy by protecting them from disturbance during the breeding season, according to fisheries officer Aplha Chilwana. “We [also] have a rule that forbids people from cutting trees that are near the river,” said fisherman Rabson Kwimba: “if we do not look after the trees, then there will be no rains and no fish in the rivers.”
New maps, new relationships
The Resilient Rivers project conducted a stakeholder survey that tracked how people interacted with forests, freshwater, and fish within the catchment, and the changes they’d noticed over time. Starting with existing community knowledge was a critical first step, said Davison Gumbo, a CIFOR-ICRAF scientist based in Zambia, during the launch of the e-learning course. “It’s extremely important that we start with what communities know, and then engage with them to integrate that knowledge into planning,” he said. “This leads to better outcomes whereby communities not only benefit from the water and fish, but also contribute to their ongoing management.”
The next step was to bring the survey results together with a range of analyses. The team tracked forest cover change using satellite imagery and used that process to develop a new freely-accessible Resilient rivers and basins app within SEPAL (a system for earth observations, data access, processing and analysis for land monitoring). They also mined historical fisheries data, initiated a water temperature monitoring system, and tracked demographic changes over time.
To bring it all together, they mapped existing information spatially, to get a sense of what problems were occurring in which parts of the watershed, and why – as well as what other issues might emerge as climate change advances. “We realized most people weren’t fully aware of what was upstream and downstream of them,” said Steel. “So we put the information into a map that focused on the watershed, and sent it back to the communities so it could be posted up and people could get used to seeing their town from a watershed perspective, instead of a road network perspective.”
Six officials from the forestry and fisheries departments also came together for drone pilot training to build monitoring capacity – and foster much-needed cross-sectoral collaboration. “Those six people now work together and communicate in a way that they did not before,” said Steel. “At the local level, people know that they need to work together, but then [watershed management] often falls in the gap between the mandates of the various organizations and government divisions, and that makes it very difficult for people to advocate for these resources,” she said.
Changing this through integrated watershed management planning is not an easy job: after building understanding about forests, freshwater, fisheries, community knowledge, and changes over time, “there’s going to be a long, painful process of negotiating shared resources,” said Steel. “But you can’t do any of that without putting the data together across disciplines – this has to be part of the foundation.”
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