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Raise a glass (of water) to the Pantanal


Happy Pantanal Day! I think it’s fitting that such an amazing place has its own special day; a wetland the size of Belgium, Switzerland, Holland and Portugal combined – the world’s largest – definitely deserves to be celebrated!

This huge floodplain is home to an incredible array of species with over 5000 recorded to date.  It provides essential sanctuaries for resident and migrating birds, vital nurseries for aquatic life, and is a refuge for rare animals, birds and plants.  Amongst these, the jaguar, hyacinth macaw and marsh deer, all endangered, but can be found in large numbers in the Pantanal

Aerial view of the Pantanal © Anastasia Taylor-LindAerial view of the Pantanal © Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Water is life

Like the Amazon, the Pantanal spans country borders; Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.  About 80% lies in Brazil, but despite its size and incredible biodiversity it is less well known than the Amazon. All life in the Pantanal relies on an annual flooding cycle or flood pulse. During the rains about 80% is submerged underwater, then throughout the dry season the water subsides.  It’s this process that is essential to provide the nutrients that both species and wetlands need to thrive.

An area this size clearly needs a lot of water to ensure it continues to flood and that the health of the ecosystem is maintained. The quality of that water is also important, so what goes on in the surrounding areas – the headwaters – is essential to feeding the Pantanal with the vital water it requires.

The headwaters provide the biggest threats to the wetlands, with urban development and ever expanding agriculture, leading to pollution, deforestation and erosion, changing the water quality and its natural flows as it makes its way down to the floodplain below. Erratic weather patterns exacerbate these issues.

Jaguar in the Pantanal © Anthony B.Rath_WWFJaguar in the Pantanal © Anthony B.Rath_WWF

In recent years there has been noticeably less water in the rivers in the region and shifts in weather patterns. But the Pantanal and its headwaters are not the only parts of Brazil to be affected. São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, has recently been experiencing severe droughts with water rations implemented. Probably for the first time many people will have thought more about where their water comes from and what a valuable resource it really is. Those who live in more rural areas and rely on rivers for their livelihoods are acutely aware of changes in quantity and quality.

What a difference a year makes

A year ago I was in the region working with my Brazilian colleagues on the HSBC Water Programme (HWP). We’ve been building momentum in the Upper Paraguay River Basin for headwaters conservation – protection of rivers, springs and the essential forests that surround them. It’s a slow process. We all need water to thrive and yet generating the will to take positive action is a huge challenge.

Through our work, over the last few months, communities, local governments and businesses have convened highlighting shared concerns about their water resources. It has not been an easy task to get everyone engaged in this process, however they have now identified and agreed 34 shared priorities across five themes focused on water related issues. A coordination group of 49 organisations (representing all sectors of society in the region) have been driving the agenda more recently and are now formalising these priorities into a document called the Pantanal Pact.

Long term commitment to water conservation

The goal of the HWP in Brazil is for 25 mayors in the Upper Paraguay River Basin to sign the Pantanal Pact. This is being constructed in collaboration with all sectors of society; raising awareness about the shared water issues, to ensure buy-in and local ownership with long term commitment to springs protection. The pact creates a framework for the municipalities to continue conservation efforts beyond the lifetime of our current work. In doing so, not only are they securing better water resources for their communities and business, but in turn ensuring protection of the Pantanal downstream.

Headwaters springs restoration, Upper Paraguay River Basin © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.Headwaters springs restoration, Upper Paraguay River Basin © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Whether the recent droughts affecting the South of Brazil have had positive impacts on our progress in the Pantanal headwaters remains to be seen. But what it has done is given us a platform to raise the profile of critical freshwater issues at a time when it is very much in the forefront of everyone’s minds across Brazil. This can only help strengthen our messages and actions on water conservation not only in the region we’re working, but also to the wider population.

We’ve made great progress over the last couple of years, but we still have a lot of work to do to safeguard this incredible place. For now, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating this vast, sprawling expanse of water and all that resides there.

Why not read the news article on The Water Hub website

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