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Protecting and Restoring Watersheds

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 9: Protecting Watersheds > Protecting and Restoring Watersheds

The land in a watershed is usually owned by many different people. It can be difficult to get everyone's cooperation to restore and improve a watershed. But because the watershed includes everyone, it is important for as many people as possible to support and participate in efforts to protect the watershed.

Sustainable development protects watersheds

Some changes to watersheds, such as building roads, damming a river to provide irrigation or electricity, or draining wetlands to reduce breeding grounds for insects, are made in the hope of improving people's lives. But if these changes are made without considering how water naturally moves through the watershed, they may cause more harm than good.

Illustration of the below: A river flows through a landscape with homes, forest, farmland, wetlands, and a factory.
Houses and businesses are built away from the river's edge.
Forests slow water runoff and spread it across floodplains.
The natural curves of the river reduce flooding.
Wetlands filter contamination and absorb floodwaters.

There are many ways to make improvements to living conditions that will not damage the watershed, helping it to remain healthy for people now and in the future.

  • Build houses, roads, and settlements so as not to change the natural flow of water through a watershed or cause erosion, and so they are protected from seasonal flooding.

Benefits of protecting a watershed

Protecting a watershed often involves settling disputes over land, marking clear boundaries, developing plans for the flow of water, making agreements among neighbors about the use of land and water, and gathering and sharing the resources necessary to do the work.

In many communities, these are not easy projects. Local and regional governments may become involved in settling disputes — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

But if people can work together to protect the watershed, it will mean having more water. Since water scarcity causes or worsens conflicts, having more water will improve relations among people as well as protect community health.

A farmer in a field of crops shakes hands with a man standing with his cow.
When communities work to protect their
watersheds, there is more water for everyone.

Some benefits of protecting a watershed are:

  • more and cleaner water in wells and springs.
  • better crop yields, even during dry times.
  • healthier livestock.

With more water, more crops are produced. This increases people’s incomes, making them less likely to leave their homes in search of work.

The story "Watershed damage in the Aguan River Valley" continues here.

Improving health in the Aguan River Valley

The hurricane that hit Honduras affected everyone in the Aguan River watershed, so everyone was willing to work together to recover. People from towns and villages all over the valley began to meet. There had been landslides everywhere and many people were without homes. With help from the Catholic church, they began talking about how to fix their problems in a lasting way.

As they rebuilt their communities, they learned that the way they farmed could either damage or protect the land. Farmers could improve the soil and prevent erosion by planting in rows across the hillsides instead of up and down. And drainage ditches, stone walls, and other barriers they made could protect their hillsides. The farmers were glad to learn new ways to protect their lands. But they also knew that the people doing the most harm were the cattle ranchers and plantation owners.

Villagers and farmers began visiting families who had large banana plantations or ranches with many cattle. The villagers spoke with the large landowners about the importance of protecting the water for everyone. “It is not only the poor who suffer from the effects of damaged land and contaminated water,” they said. “It is all of us.”

Over time, even the richest landowners in the valley began to help in the recovery effort. Some agreed to fence the creeks and springs to keep cattle out. Others, who owned land in the hills, let the villagers who had land below plant trees on their hillsides. Farmers from the valley approached landowners near the hilltops and offered to trade some of their land for permission to fence and protect the lands above.
A woman standing at the doorway of her home speaks with another woman.
It was better for ranchers to have valley land for their cattle and better for the whole community to keep cattle off the hilltops, so the plan helped everyone.

After the hurricane, villagers in the Aguan River Valley began to have good relations among people who once had rarely spoken to each other. They learned that by protecting their watershed, they and their children would have cleaner water and safer homes. This is good for the watershed and good for the community.

Planning a community watershed project

The watershed team of the Aguan River Valley followed these steps in beginning to protect their watershed:

Illustration of the below: A group of villagers talk while gathered on a river bank.
Why do you think the river is so contaminated?
The water downstream by the factory is warmer than before. The rocks where my husband used to fish are covered in slime.
  1. Find out the condition of the watershed
    As a group, with community leaders, teachers and other people, visit places important to the health of the watershed. Depending on the size of the watershed, this may take 1 day or several weeks.

    Visit the main waterways, and note where they connect with one another. Make notes about who lives in which parts of the watershed, and how land and resources are used in different areas. Visit the places where people collect water, places where water may become contaminated (such as near factories, pastures, and places where trash collects) and other areas of concern.

    Speak with people about the changes they have noticed over time. Hunters and people who fish know where the animals are, and where they used to be, at different times of the year. Your community is full of experts about your watershed.
  2. Illustration of the below: Drawing labelled "Our Watershed."

    water source
  3. Make a map or drawing of the watershed
    After these visits, discuss what you have learned and how to best share the information with the whole community. Discuss what things can cause harm to the land and water. It can help to make a map of the watershed and mark the places of concern. Elders can help by making maps of how things used to be and how they have changed.
  4. Organize a community meeting
    Organize a meeting of people from all the communities in the watershed. It is especially important to invite health workers, people responsible for water and sanitation, landowners, business owners, and people who collect water.

    Use your map or drawing to explain the problems you found. Encourage people to share their concerns about health and discuss how problems might be caused by water contamination, deforestation, soil erosion, and other watershed issues. Remember to talk about both surface water and groundwater.

    The goal of this discussion is to begin moving from identifying problems to the process of solving them. As each issue is raised, ask: How could we start solving this problem right now? Will we need technical support, money, or other resources? Who needs to be involved?
  5. A group of people at a meeting discuss a map labelled "Our Watershed."
  6. Build partnerships
    Meetings and watershed walks are ways to build partnerships among people in a watershed. Organize meetings with people who live in the downstream parts of the watershed, and other meetings with those who live upstream. Then organize meetings with representatives from the different groups. Identify common goals and find ways of working toward them so everyone benefits.

    Partnerships can sometimes be difficult to build, especially in a large watershed. You may have to coordinate among different local groups and also also city or legal committees. Different groups or communities will often have their own ideas of what should happen in the watershed and may have difficulty understanding or accepting the needs and ideas of others. Differences in power, resources and influence can cause serious conflicts. But when everyone’s needs and contributions are respected, not simply those of people with wealth or status, strong partnerships can develop. Openness and honesty in working relationships will help create trust. And if all partners are expected to contribute to the partnership, they should also benefit from it.

    Think about some of the deals made in the Aguan River Valley. One group planted trees on other people's land. Wealthy ranchers agreed to fence creeks and springs. Some people even traded land. Determination, patience, and benefits of more and cleaner water allowed partnerships to grow and succeed.
  7. Make an action plan
    Set clear goals and make an action plan. One goal may be to have trees growing near all water sources in 5 years. Another goal may be to protect a river so that in 50 years it will be safe to drink.

    The action plan could include the protection of some land by not using it at all, especially near streams or on hilltops. Post "Watershed Preserve: Do Not Use" signs or mark trees with paint.

    The first to benefit from watershed protection are usually people at the bottom of the watershed (by having more water and improved soil). Make an action plan that includes the needs of those at the top of the watershed who will only benefit later. When everyone in the community works together, the plan is more likely to succeed.

Aguan River Valley Watershed Action Plan
A group of people at a meeting discuss lines on a poster.
  1. Do not cut vegetation near water sources.
  2. Help young trees grow, and reforest areas that have few trees, especially close to water sources.
  3. Start community nurseries to grow plants for reforestation.
  4. Organize groups to prevent and fight forest fires. Educate local farmers not to burn their fields, or how to do safe, controlled fires.
  5. Fence the area around water sources and post "Protected Area" signs.
  6. Encourage farmers to conserve soil by using green manures, recycling crop wastes, building retaining walls, and planting on contour lines.
  7. Discourage the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
  8. Work with the local government and water commissions to move toilets, sewer systems, and washing areas away from water sources.
  9. Organize community trash collection, and prevent trash from washing into streams and rivers.
  10. Move cattle away from water sources, and mark areas where no cattle should graze.
  11. Make sure people who have just moved to the community and new businesses learn about the watershed and how they can help care for it.

These steps can be a model for any community's watershed protection project. The most important part of the project is to involve as many people as possible in agreements that will benefit everyone in the long term.