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The Water

Water is a renewable resource that continuously circulates between the atmosphere, the surface of the earth and underground, in what we call the hydro-geobiological cycle. We are accustomed to it always being there, satisfying our needs. It can also produce fear when it takes the form of natural phenomena we call extreme or disastrous. Fresh water makes up around 2.5% of the Earth's total volume of water. The most important freshwater resources are underground (around 30%), water we often don't think about much since we can't see it, and freshwater wetlands (approximately 0.35%.) In Central America aquifers represent our major source of water. These are being exhausted, however, and the region is now tapping into rivers and lakes. In El Salvador, for example, heavy use is being made of surface water from the Lempa River. Human beings utilize water for four major activities: domestic use, agriculture (especially irrigation), industry and supply and consumption. Most people in Central America see water as a resource that will never run out, thanks to the copious rainfall in our countries. But water does not exist all by itself. For this vital resource to continue with the quality required for human consumption, the ecosystems that make its existence possible must be conserved. Forests and freshwater wetlands are essential for producing and maintaining the quality of this resource. Water use and management does not take into consideration certain functions that are often carried out by these ecosystems, such as regulating flow, water storage, carbon fixing, and energy production from photosynthesis. Land use planning is necessary, and must include an integrated approach to catchment management if water resources are to be conserved and restored in our Central American region.

There is concern about water in many sectors all over the world, making this problem as significant as global warming and holes in the ozone layer. Important efforts are being made to bring different sectors together for comprehensive planning and management of this resource. International organisms involved in these initiatives include the Global Water Partnership (GWP), the World Water Council (WWC), the World Commission on Dams (WCD), the IUCN Freshwater Initiative and others at the regional level. Nevertheless, water resources are seriously threatened, not just by unwise and excessive use for domestic activities and irrigating crops, but as the result of poor management of solid and liquid waste and the advance of the agricultural frontier. This last phenomenon is causing the destruction of forests and the transformation of continental wetlands--ecosystems that help produce and maintain good quality water. Conversion of these ecosystems has reduced the buffering qualities of wetlands, which act as a sponge in slowing down violent flows of water. They also mitigate flooding in the lower areas of basins, where coastal wetlands (including mangroves) play a vital role as barriers against floods and storms. A good part of the problem also lies in the lack of knowledge about these ecosystems. Even though in many cases they contain important volumes of water and natural resources, the potential and quality of these resources is not understood, despite the fact that most of the region's wetlands with international importance are freshwater.

During its passage through Central America in October 1998, Hurricane Mitch was a natural event that showed in drastic and painful ways just how serious it can be to manage natural ecosystems unwisely. The document, "1999 State of the Region" (European Union, UNDP) pinpoints the urgent need to improve national and regional land use planning. It also urges the establishment of systems for monitoring, interpretation, education and prevention, which would allow countries to take immediate action within the framework of integrated catchment management. One significant initiative in this field is the participatory preparation of the Action Plan for Water in the Central American Isthmus (Plan de Acción para Agua en el Istmo Centroamericano - PACADIRH), the first effort toward regional integration concerning this important theme. Many more efforts are needed to unify hydrologists, hydraulic engineers and ecologists, a vital multidisciplinary combination for a more holistic and comprehensive approach. Other elements essential for integrated management and conservation plans include legislative and regulatory frameworks, local and private sector participation, and effective communication with decision-makers.

The IUCN Wetlands and Coastal Zones Program for Mesoamerica has dedicated this fourth informational bulletin to the theme of water conservation and management in Central America, providing information on the principal problems concerning this resource, noteworthy regional experiences, and global initiatives that should serve as a framework for action in our region. Each of our countries has a long ways to go. The basis for any comprehensive management effort lies in the availability of information about water resources, catchment areas and their quality. Sharing this information is the work of every woman and man in Central America.

"Giver and taker of life; essential element of all existence and untamable destroyer; spiritual expression of purity and contaminated purveyor of affliction; bringer of blessings and of tragedy; agent of social, economic and political discord.  Water is all these things ........(Page, 1997). "

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