Watershed Management: A Tool for Sustainable Development

in Issue 31 by

As the population of Belize continues to grow the demand for use of the natural resources will continue to rise. Human beings are completely dependent on the environment for survival. The land produces the food we eat, the forests provide the water we drink and the shelter we need. It is an unending struggle to balance economic development with the protection of the environment, also known as sustainable development. In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is not an end but rather a process for meeting human development goals while maintaining the ability of the earth’s natural systems to provide in perpetuity, the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend.

With the many competing interests for finite resources at every level of society, it is no doubt a difficult task to plan for and work toward sustainable development. Nevertheless, there are options to support the process. One of these is watershed management and planning. What is a watershed? A watershed is a basin-like physical landscape, where water that is “shed” from the land flows from the highest points on the landscape (mountain/hill ridge lines) to the lowest points in the basin, usually a river, stream or lake. The water shed from the land eventually drains into the seas and oceans. The water within this basin landscape is from both surface and subsurface (groundwater), being sourced from snowmelt, and in the case of Belize, rainfall and storm water runoff (Figure 1). One watershed is separated from another by naturally elevated areas. Adjacent watersheds always share the ridgelines.

Water as a basic need for human survival is a valuable natural resource and therefore requires proper use and management. Management of environmental issues has in the past generally taken a silo approach in which specific issues are addressed individually and separately. It has traditionally been focused on specific concerns of land, air, water or wildlife, for example. But at the broader landscape level, in particular the watershed landscape, it is clear to see that the various land uses impact on users downstream. It is important to recognize that we all live in a watershed. What happens upstream of us will affect us, and our own everyday activities will affect downstream waters and users. The quality and quantity of water is affected by land use including roads, urban development, agriculture, mining and other activities of people in a watershed. But these activities may be necessary for our development and well being. So how do we achieve the balance in maintaining an acceptable quality of water with these necessary human activities? One answer is watershed management.

Watershed management is an adaptive, comprehensive, integrated multi-resource management planning process that seeks to balance healthy ecological, economic, and cultural/social conditions within a watershed. Watershed management serves to integrate planning for land and water; it takes into account both ground and surface water flow, recognizing and planning for the interaction of water, plants, animals and human land use found within the physical boundaries of a watershed. With this approach we can address multiple issues and objectives, thus enabling planning within a very complex and uncertain environment. With the threats and risks of a changing climate, and multiple factors such as rising deforestation due to increased urbanization, large scale agricultural development and growth, invasive species etc., the need to balance the water needs of business and citizens, while at the same time maintaining the required amounts to meet ecological needs of our environment, becomes ever more pressing.

In Belize there are 18 major watersheds, with another 16 sub-watersheds which drain the Maya Mountains and discharge into the Caribbean Sea (hydromet.gov.bz)(Figure 2). The largest and most populated watershed is the Belize River Watershed, a portion of which is shared with Guatemala. We all live in a watershed. Can you identify the watershed where you are located? Think about how the activities upstream are affecting you. How are your activities affecting others downstream? Is there enough water to meet all the competing demands in your watershed – humans, agriculture, tourism, community expansion, ecosystems? What do you think is the quality of the water in your watershed?

Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at what’s happening in your watershed. Watershed planning is not a new concept. However, in order to adequately address the economic, social and environmental issues of the nation, there needs to be a deliberate move toward holistic planning and evaluating at the watershed level which is inclusive and broad and combines the needs of diverse watershed stakeholders; a clear recognition of the balance between ecosystem, community and economic health; and a process which respects the integration of activities on the land and their impact on water. Several countries in the region have taken a holistic approach to planning, providing us with ample beneficial experiences from which we can learn. Several national initiatives can contribute toward this holistic approach, among them being the National Integrated Water Resources (NIWRA) Policy and the National Land Use Policy and National Integrated Planning Framework for Land Resource Development. But these need to be complemented by and complementary to other landscape level policies and strategies, to comprehensively address the challenges of sustainable development in Belize.