To protect its precious water, Bogotá looks to the Big Apple

© Maria Doerr

When it comes to water, Latin American cities can learn a lot from the Big Apple.

Faced with the challenge of securing a clean and cost-effective supply of water for 8 million people, authorities in New York 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.

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

Nature plays no less of a 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; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — and the precious water they drink comes from the forests and mountains in their outskirts.

With these watersheds facing threats from unfettered development and climate change, whom better to call for advice than the man who helped New York? A recent workshop in Bogotá highlighted the challenges — and potential solutions — to protecting water by protecting nature in Latin American cities.

Water & Cities Alliance

Despite having some of the most abundant water resources and biodiverse environments in the world, Bogotá, Mexico City, and Rio share more than just an abundance of nature. They face ecosystem fragmentation, unsustainable development and vulnerability to climate change that threaten their water security; Mexico City and Rio are among the 10 most water-stressed cities in the world.

Enter the Water & Cities Alliance, a partnership formed by Conservation International (CI) and the three cities that aims to protect water supplies by protecting nature.

Through the Water Forest Initiative, CI is working to protect and restore the grasslands and forests that provide 70 percent of the water to 23 million inhabitants of Mexico City. In Brazil, CI is working with local communities to conserve lands in the Guandu watershed and Mega Rio basin. Meanwhile, in Colombia, CI promotes sustainable land use in a conservation corridor in the highlands outside Bogotá.

But intending to protect watersheds is one thing. Actually doing it — in different political, climatic and geographic contexts — is another.

This is where Al Appleton comes in.

The Big Apple comes to Bogotá

Big watershed challenges are Appleton’s specialty.

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 Catskills watershed outside New York City.

The Catskill watershed program was ahead of its time and was remarkably successful, not just in terms of water supplied — back to that “champagne” — but in terms of money saved: By not having to build water treatment plants, the city has saved more than US$ 1 billion over the past two decades.

Now an international environmental consultant, Appleton was invited recently to Bogotá recently to share his experiences — and offer lessons for how one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere could protect its water.

“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 three distinct takeaways at the workshop.

  1. One size does not fit all

Throughout the conference, Appleton stressed flexibility: What works in New York may not work elsewhere.

Viable conservation techniques will vary city to city based on factors including the political climate, point and non-point source polluters and stakeholder engagement, he said.

“Be adaptive,” Appleton advised. “Good strategies are not improvised. Good tactics always are.”

Appleton also emphasized collaboration, getting input from the local water utility, NGOs, urban residents and rural watershed users like farmers. The Catskill program’s success, he said, can be credited in part to its flexibility and its focus on being locally based and locally designed: “Once you agree on the question and are on the same page about the problem, the answer will follow.”

  1. Create an identity

Building public interest in water and watershed protection — creating a true, relatable and identifiable story that can connect with the common sense experience of water users — is key to a program’s success.

“It’s about narratives,” Appleton said.

Ask people in Bogotá where their water comes from and many will tell you the páramos, the unique alpine ecosystems of the Andes. Pride in the páramos is critical for protecting the watershed, Appleton said. “You need to stress that Bogotá’s water is great and we want to keep it great,” he urged, saying that once water users agree, governing bodies will have to follow.

  1. Focus on success

For the Catskills project, rather than promoting sustainable development or improving water quality, Appleton’s team sought to develop a solution that would preserve New York City’s water for all time. And they did.

“Be sure that what you’re proposing to do actually solves the problem,” Appleton advised.

Each short-term goal and achievement should be linked to a long-term outcome.

“The future is going to be an urban future,” Appleton reminded 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.”

Water needs nature

At the workshop, Appleton was positive about the Water & Cities Alliance and the ability for the three cities and their surrounding countrysides to become sustainable landscapes and “capitals of sustainable global leadership.”

Experts have already seen progress as a result of this work.

“The city depends on healthy ecosystems,” said Jürgen Hoth, director of the Water Forest Initiative with CI Mexico. “Over the years we’ve had a big challenge to convey to constituencies that nature is important. Here we have a tremendous opportunity.”

Maria Doerr is a project officer with Conservation International-Mexico.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Further reading