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Fresh water

We all know that water is essential for the development of life: it is the most abundant substance in living organisms. However, fresh water represents only 3% of global water resources, as most of the planet’s water is saltwater in seas and oceans, and therefore, not fit for human consumption.

Fresh water exists in continental bodies of water which form lakes, lagoons, rivers, streams and ravines. These bodies also exist underground, where they are called aquifers. Lakes, lagoons, ponds and swamps are continental bodies of water with no flow, which is the reason they are called lentic or standing waters. On the other hand, springs, ravines, streams and rivers are bodies of water which continually flow in one direction due to gravity, which is why they are called lotic or flowing waters.

Countries that had many glaciers in the past, such as Canada and Finland, are the richest in fresh water bodies, with thousands of lakes and rivers. All of these continental waters are habitats where a large variety of living beings live and develop, and depend on water to survive. The Dominican Republic also has important fresh water resources and aquatic plant and animal communities. At least 35,000 hectares of its surface are covered by continental bodies of water (rivers, lakes and lagoons). This, however, is less than 1% of the country’s entire area, which explains why this resource is so precious for the country. Moreover, the Dominican Republic also has an area of 44,000 hectares of permanently or seasonally flooded vegetation, distributed in forests, scrubs and wetland savannahs, and vegetation typical of wetlands.

Continental water pollution
Threats against water resources in the Dominican Republic
Earth Summit-Agenda 21
Watershed conservation
Protection of water resources in the Dominican Republic

Continental water pollution

Nevertheless, continental water pollution and exploitation are causing negative impact on fresh water ecosystems, with serious consequences for humans. The United Nations estimates that a quarter of the world's population lacks clean drinking water, and that these figures will double within the next 20 years. The magnitude of this problem requires great steps in the preservation and management of water resources worldwide, and at regional, national and local levels. Such management should be based on scientific data from various disciplines, in order to establish programs for the use, management and preservation of water that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

At present, aquatic biodiversity of a large number of springs, rivers and lakes in the world is threatened due to toxic waste pollution. Pollution by heavy metals such as mercury and lead in rivers and lakes is fatal for fish and their predators in these ecosystems, and poses a real health concern for the population who consumes these fish. In some cases, rivers have been converted into real opencast sewers which receive untreated sewage, soapy water, and water filled with phosphates and toxic chemicals, from industry and agriculture. On the other hand, hydroelectric dams also constitute a threat to fresh water biodiversity, as they cut numerous river basins that fish once roamed, for breeding or feeding, and which they can no longer do. In addition, they reduce the flow of rivers downstream, with all the consequences that entails for irrigation agriculture and human populations.

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Threats against water resources in the Dominican Republic

Nowadays, as in many other parts of the world, most rivers and lakes of The Hispaniola island are threatened by overuse, pollution, hydroelectric dams and desiccation resulting from climate change, among other things. For example, pressures such as deforestation caused by commercial logging, agriculture, livestock, soil erosion and sedimentation downstream, raise serious threats to the integrity of the water resources of this island country. These threats can cause huge variations in river flows and generate downstream flooding.

A portion of Dominican wetlands have already undergone a major change in their use and are now covered with taro crops (Colocasia esculenta) and rice (Oryza sativa) plantations. In addition, a study by Columbia University in New York, estimates that the availability of fresh water in the Dominican Republic will be reduced by 85% by the end of the XXI century due to climate change, which will also cause other harsh impacts mid-term. An estimated 20% reduction in the yearly amount of rainfall, an increase in evapotranspiration and an increase of the Dominican population of almost 50% by mid-century, will reduce fresh water availability per capita from the current 2,200 cubic meters to less than 400 cubic meters by 2100. In addition, this research indicates that negative effects are already evident and are caused by the drought affecting the country, which has led to a reduction in irrigation and hydroelectric production.

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Earth Summit-Agenda 21

In view of the danger facing fresh water resources worldwide, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the Earth Summit), addressed the situation of the planet's water resources. Within the framework of Agenda 21 it analyzed the overall problem and developed a series of recommendations for the protection of the quality and supply of fresh water in the world.

As far as development is concerned, the main goal of the UN program for the protection of fresh water resources is to support the possibilities and the efforts of central and local governments, that seek to sustain productivity and national development through the environmentally rational management of water resources for urban consumption. To support this goal, it is necessary to formulate and implement strategies and measures which would allow a continued affordable water supply that responds to present and future needs, as well as the reversal of current tendencies of degradation and depletion of resources. Three of the main objectives of the program are: 1) to try to ensure that all urban residents have access to at least 40 liters of drinking water per person per day, and that approximately 75% of the urban population has available individual or communal sanitization, 2) to seek to establish and implement quantitative and qualitative standards for the evacuation of municipal or industrial effluents, and 3) ensure that around 75% of the solid waste generated in urban areas is collected and recycled or disposed of without risk for the environment.

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Watershed conservation

A recent study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveals that the protection of watersheds provides fresh water to many of the biggest cities in the world and, at the same time, saves billions of dollars. A large number of cities have understood that protecting watershed areas makes them more profitable. Instead of clearing forests or draining their swamps, they are maintaining the watersheds healthy, while saving tons of money by not having to finance expensive infrastructures for water storage, cleaning or transportation. For example, Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, obtains free fresh water from 60 rivers which originate in the surrounding areas of the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park. Its water has an estimated value of about 1.5 billion dollars. Likewise, the capital of Venezuela, Caracas, depends on rivers in the Guatopo and Macarao national parks for its fresh water supply. Nowadays, these rivers continue to provide a constant flow of water to this city of 5 million inhabitants, which consumes approximately 17,000 liters of water per second.

In response to the global water and biotic resource crisis, IUCN proposes to build a world in which the benefits that fresh water and related ecosystems provide to humanity are optimized, while the intrinsic values of these systems are respected and preserved. Some objectives of this initiative would be: 1) to demonstrate the success of sustainable integrated management of ecosystems in basins, so that it can be replicated elsewhere; 2) to empower the population to establish a participative, equitable and responsible use of water resources; 3) to promote good governance which facilitates the rational use of water and prevents conflicts over this resource; 4) to develop and implement economic and financial tools for the proper management of water resources; 5) to create and share knowledge and technology to improve the management of water resources, and 6) to structure knowledge in order to improve the awareness on rational use of water.

More and more countries are making significant efforts to equip themselves with legislation and policies, but they are often left unapplied, experts claim, complaining that the "main problem is a lack of vision for the preservation of fresh water biodiversity," despite the fact that in many regions of the world, fresh water fish are essential to the diet of the population. In view of this crisis, the priority should be to become aware that water is a finite and very vulnerable resource and, that there is a fresh water crisis that should not be denied but faced. There is no alternative but to protect fresh water resources. The solution to the water crisis which the planet is currently facing has to start with society, as a whole, recognizing the problem. The priority should be to provide sufficient potable water for food, drink and personal hygiene for all human beings.

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Protection of water resources in the Dominican Republic

Fortunately, the Dominican Republic has already begun to protect these valuable aquatic resources, especially through the General Law on Environment and Natural Resources (64-00), under Title IV, Chapter III. At the same time, it has undertaken a series of actions to offset the loss and pollution of continental water resources. A good example is the successful fresh water conservation program, which the government, via its Department of National Parks and several international and national NGOs, has developed over the past 7 years in the central mountain range of The Hispaniola.

The area, known as Mother of Waters Conservation Area, covers approximately 5% of the country's territory and is home to many small rural communities. In this area, we find five protected areas of national importance: the national parks Armando Bermudez, Juan B. Pérez Rancier (Valle Nuevo), José del Carmen Ramírez, Eugenio de Jesús Marcano (The Humeadora mountain) and Nalga de Maco, and the Ebano Verde Scientific Reserve. This region is the source of most of the island’s rivers and supplies water to nearly 80% of the population of the Dominican Republic and to most of Haiti. Because it is a very mountainous area, it contains the best representations of coniferous, montane broadleaf, and cloudy forests on the island. The cloudy forest in the mountainous central region, for example, plays a key role in the water cycle of the island, as it serves as a source of fresh water for most of its river systems, while the montane broadleaf forest provides protection to these lower altitude waterways.

Some of the conservation program’s activities are: 1) eco-regional aquatic classification of the area known as the Mother of Waters, through the use of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology; 2) participation of the relevant institutions and key individuals in the development of an integrated water and forest resources management system; 3) training of staff in the protected areas on the sustainable management of resources, including the integrated management of forest fires; and 4) general awareness in local communities, through a radio program designed to inform the rural population about conservation and appropriate farming practices. This last activity was implemented with the support of school teachers, who produced an environmental guide to educate the students and their parents about the value of the places where they live and how to protect the aquatic and forest resources on which they depend.

It is hoped that in the future, water management in the Dominican Republic will improve even more by learning the lessons from the past and benefitting from the successful examples of pioneering programs such as the one that was developed in the central region of the country, Mother of Waters, where the main rivers originate. In this regard, the key will be to promote the already generated knowledge, to improve water use practices for consumption and irrigation, and to promote the governance of fresh water systems which take into account the needs of the rural and urban populations and their livelihoods, as well as the integrated response to climate change on continental water resources. Within this framework, it is vital to establish the necessary legal and institutional frameworks and the political, social, economic and environmental conditions, to jointly ensure an equitable and fair access to water resources.

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