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From the Catskills to Colombia

Welcome to a land where people drink cloud water, where rivers crisscross a verdant landscape and where páramos, high alpine tundra, extend as far as the eye can see. Welcome to Colombia.

The majority of the worlds páramos are found in Colombia

Conservation International Colombia works to protect these delicate and vital ecosystems, the services they provide and the people who rely on them. While having some of the most abundant water resources and biodiverse environments in the world, these resources are threatened by ecosystem fragmentation and unsustainable development. For the last ten years, work to protect the Conservation Corridor, led by Patricia Bejarano, has focused on protecting the watershed that provides water to more than 9 million Colombians in and around Bogotá.

Bogotá is home to more than 9 million Colombians

Protecting water by protecting nature is a common need in Latin American cities.

Nature plays an important role for 45 million people in three of Latin America’s largest cities. About 7 percent of Latin Americans live in Bogotá, Colombia; Mexico City, Mexico; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — and their precious water comes from vast forests and grasslands in their surrounding mountains.

A recent workshop in Bogotá highlighted the challenges — and potential solutions — to protecting watersheds in Latin American cities and reflected on the accumulated experience of watershed conservation that New York City has had in the Catskill Mountains.

Workshop with representatives from CI Headquarters, CI Colombia, CI Mexico and CI Brazil

International Collaboration

The time to protect urban watersheds is now. Bogotá, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro are challenged with ecosystem fragmentation, unsustainable urban and rural development and vulnerability to climate change that threaten water security. Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro are already in the top 10 water stressed cities in the world.

In light of these challenges, the Water & Cities Alliance was formed by Conservation International between Bogotá, Mexico City and Rio to collaborate with regional governments and communities and to share lessons on how protecting nature can protect water supplies.

Robin Abell, CI Freshwater Lead, is excited by the innovative work in the Water & Cities Alliance. Bringing CI’s expertise into the freshwater realm can, “create a spark for programs and a model for how a city can protect its watershed and create many other co-benefits at the same time."

CI participants during a field visit

Jürgen Hoth, Robin Abell, Maria Doerr and Omar Martínez

Through the Water Forest Initiative, CI Mexico is working to preserve the watershed that provides 70% of the water to 23 million inhabitants through community-based conservation projects and help coordinate effective operations between protected areas in the grasslands and forests surrounding Mexico City. CI Brazil is leading conservation in the Guandu watershed and Mega-Rio basin with local stakeholders, and CI Colombia is coordinating land-use in the páramos watershed through the Conservation Corridor.

The Conservation Corridor is an area of strategic importance for securing water resources in Bogotá and surrounding communities. It covers nearly 1.7 million hectares, 22 urban and rural municipalities and traverses some of the largest páramos in the world. CI Colombia's Patricia Bejarano leads preservation, restoration and sustainable use planning throughout the region and works to align diverse urban, rural and institutional actors. Even with recent successes, including the declaration of a new regional natural park in the Conservation Corridor, there is much to be done.

Big watershed challenges are Al Appleton's specialty.

Al Appleton during the Bogotá Water and Cities Conference

Lessons from the Big Apple

As an international environmental consultant, Appleton was invited to Bogotá to share his experiences and offer lessons for how three of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere could protect their water. The Goal? To develop a strategic plan of action for comprehensive, nature-based solutions in the Conservation Corridor.

Patricia Bejarano of CI Colombia leads an activity

Appleton was New York City’s Environmental Protection Commissioner in the 1990s and is credited with designing the 1993 program to protect water resources in the Catskill watershed outside of New York City.

Faced with the challenge of securing a clean and cost-effective supply of water for 8 million people, authorities in New York City did something that at the time seemed revolutionary: rather than build costly water filtration systems, they protected the natural watersheds that provided the city’s water.

The Catskill watershed program was ahead of its time and remarkably successful, not just in terms of water supplied and partnerships created, but in terms of money saved: by not having to build water treatment plants, the city has saved well over US$ 1 billion over the past two decades.

Now, New York City drinks what is often called “champagne of drinking water,” supplied and filtered by a vast watershed of rivers that lie north of the city in the Catskill mountains.

Appleton shares tips for success

"In the next 20 years, watersheds will be recognized as the most valuable ecosystems on the planet," Appleton told the 20 water and conservation experts at the workshop. The services that watersheds provide, Appleton said, will become all the more precious as urbanization continues and climatic impacts become more potent.

Appleton offered four distinct takeaways at the workshop.

1. One size does not fit all

"Good strategies are not improvised. Good tactics always are." Throughout the conference, Appleton stressed the necessity of being flexible when developing a watershed conservation program.

What worked in the Catskills won't necessarily work in the Water & Cities Alliance cities. "Be adaptive," Appleton recommends. Specific and viable conservation will techniques vary city to city based on factors including the political climate, point and non-point source polluters and stakeholder engagement.

Reservoir in the Chingaza National Natural Park

Adaptability looks like developing tailored procedures for watershed conservation with the valued input of the local water utility, NGOs, urban residents, and rural watershed users like farmers. The Catskill program's success can be credited in part to its flexibility and focus on being locally based, locally designed: "Once you agree on the question and are on the same page about the problem, the answer will follow." The most creative and innovative solutions come out of listening and joint problem solving with people on the ground.

2. Create an identity

Building public interest in water and watershed protection is key to a program's success. "It's about narratives," Appleton says. It's about creating a true, relatable and identifiable story that can connect with the common sense experience of water users.

Ask people in Bogotá where their water comes from and many will tell you the páramos. Pride in the páramos is decisive for preserving the watershed, suggests Appleton. "You need to stress that Bogotá's water is great and we want to keep it great." Once you have the water users with you, the governing bodies will have to follow.

Lago Chuza, an artificial lake that is the source of much of the water used in Bogotá

Changing how we communicate water in an urban context can open a door to more holistic conservation. "The city is the new frontier," suggests Jürgen Hoth, Director of the Water Forest Initiative with CI Mexico. "Here we can combine the urban, the rural and the natural all together. The city depends on healthy ecosystems. Over the years we've had a big challenge to convey that nature is important. Here we have a tremendous opportunity." Water serves as the connection between the human landscape: urban to rural. Conceiving and communicating an urban identity around water, you solidify the connection to and interest in saving the watershed.

Jürgen Hoth of CI Mexico

3. Focus on success

"Be sure that what you're proposing to do actually solves the problem," Appleton advises. With the Catskills conservation project, Appleton and his team set out to get it done. Rather than promoting sustainable development or improving water quality, they sought to develop a solution that would preserve New York City's water for all time. And they did.

Each short-term goal and achievement should be linked to a long-term win. The urgency of action makes tactful, results-oriented work all the more important. Frankly we have no other choice: "The future is going to be an urban future," Appleton reminds attendees. "You don't have an urban future without a reliable water system, and you don't have a reliable water system without reliable watersheds."

The majority of water in Bogotá comes from the surrounding páramos

4. Stay ahead of the curve

Four days in Colombia with Al Appleton helped set the groundwork for more strategic, collaborative watershed conservation both nationally and internationally. CI Colombia and the other Water & City Alliance watersheds are moving forward with the above-mentioned principles, and many more, in mind. "Our urgency requires us to be smart; to learn from regional knowledge, from experiences outside and incorporate lessons from other places," shares Sebastian Troeng.

CI field visit to the Chingaza Páramo

Within the Waters & Cities Alliance in particular, there is tremendous opportunity for CI to serve as a catalyst in protected the watersheds of Bogotá, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. If the watersheds, and therefore the water supply, of 45 million people living in these three urban areas can be secured into perpetuity, you've got quite an achievement.

Appleton is positive about the Alliance and, with driven and collaborative watershed conservation, the ability for these three cities and their watersheds to become "landscapes of sustainability and capitals of sustainable global leadership."

“We represent cities,” closes Appleton. In this position, we have the opportunity to decide what kind of natural environments we want to foster around us. By protecting nature, we can protect water — and therefore — ourselves.

CI participants and Al Appleton

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