Friday, August 11, 2017

Micro-Watershed Restoration Programs in the Dominican Republic's Yaque del Norte River

By F2F Volunteer Peter Phillips

Micro-watershed that feeds into the Yaque del Norte River system

During June 2017, I spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic with the goal of training Dominican colleagues on themes related to water conservation and water quality. The majority of my assignment was focalized in the Arroyo Gurabo micro-watershed of the Yaque del Norte River in and near the city of Santiago in the Cibao Valley. My host agency was a local NGO, Asociación para el Desarrollo Integral (APEDI), and my faithful guide was Partners of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) field officer, José Alejandro Almodóvar Gómez.

The Yaque del Norte is the longest river on the island of Hispaniola. Extending for more than 200 km, the river originates in the high mountains of the Cordillera Central of the Dominican Republic and discharges in the northwest of the country not far from Haitian border. Santiago is the second largest city in the country and is located at the midpoint along the Yaque del Norte. In 2004, with support from a Fulbright Scholar program grant, I established a series of water quality sampling stations along the entire length of the Yaque del Norte River and so I was fortunate to have had prior experience in the region and of having established a record of baseline data. The Arroyo Gurabo stream is a major tributary originating in the Cordillera Septentrional, a mountain chain that forms the northern boundary of the Cibao Valley. The stream is formed by a series of springs at about 800 meters in elevation, and eventually discharges into the Yaque del Norte near downtown Santiago.

These springs all receive some sort of protection. At a minimum, the periphery of each is fenced off to protect them from livestock intrusion, at best, they are located in a heavily forested area, but that’s rare in this densely populated region. Descending from the mountains into the city, the stream edge, or the riparian zone, tends to be packed in with marginal communities of very poor residents who have, over time, settled here for lack of a better option. This is a common pattern along most streams running through Santiago.

Generally, residents must discharge their untreated wastewater into the stream. The stream also serves as a garbage dump as evidenced by the accumulation of solid waste ranging from plastics, to paper, to assorted construction debris. During flood events, which are not uncommon, the stream banks are undermined, destroying structures that have been built up over time. The loss of natural vegetation to absorb high water episodes is an endless cycle of stream bed widening that can seem hopeless to control.

However, encouraging signs are evident in unexpected moments and places. For one, I was highly impressed by measures already taken to protect all the spring sources of the Arroyo Gurabo. This was thanks to the consistent efforts by my APEDI colleagues, the managers and trainers of this particular project. Also, I was heartened to observe in my first visit to a marginal community the rapport with which APEDI colleagues interacted with community leaders and the level of understanding that these local leaders had regarding the challenges their communities faced being perched on the edge of the Arroyo Gurabo. In my second week, I was surprised by a visit to a marginal community directly on the banks of the Yaque del Norte that also happened to be my downtown Santiago sampling station from my 2004 research. This community has benefitted from USAID funding and using their own labor had constructed a wastewater collection system for the area. Now, untreated wastewater no longer enters the river, the neighborhood has a hygienic and tidy appearance, undoubtedly public health has improved and there was a very discernible lack of accumulated solid waste throughout the community alleyways and along the riverbank. This community certainly serves as an example to achieve in all Santiago’s marginal communities.

My culminating experience was a full day of dialogue and a water quality workshop well attended by APEDI colleagues and local community leaders from the upper Arroyo Gurabo watershed. I feel that my major contribution was to introduce the idea that inhabitants of the region should expand their vision of preserving water quality and water quantity to satisfy needs of human inhabitants and begin to consider the needs of the entire aquatic ecosystem.

Often, we think of the health of the environment by observing the terrestrial vegetation only and ignoring what’s in the water, what’s below the surface. Perhaps this is because it’s harder to see life in the water than on the land. But if we are good stewards of the land and the water, we will not only have a safe and reliable water supply, but we will have excellent conditions to sustain aquatic plants and animals; animals such as fish, amphibians, and all sorts of invertebrates that are important in the aquatic food web. These two aspects, satisfying human needs for clean fresh water and satisfying the minimum needs of aquatic organisms, are interdependent. One depends on the other. To accomplish this, I suggested that actions be taken to engage children in the activity of monitoring Arroyo Gurabo stream health. This could be accomplished by incorporating stream studies into school curriculum. Take the kids out to the stream and let them have fun. They’ll begin to appreciate their water source in all its aspects and likely train their families to think and take action similarly.

It was a great experience being in the Dominican Republic again after a 12 year absence and I look forward to the possibility of becoming more engaged with the recovery and sustainable management of the Arroyo Gurabo into the future.

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