Engaging Partners and Consumers to Protect Water Resources in the Wetlands of Colombia

Posted: June 05, 2021
Engaging Partners and Consumers to Protect Water Resources in the Wetlands of Colombia

More than just a key ingredient in our products, water is a critical resource for the health and well-being of every community around the world. As the world's leading brewer, we are committed to being a part of the solution to the growing water challenges across our community and supply chain. Our goal is that by 2025, 100% of our communities in high stress areas will have measurably improved water availability and quality.

We know there is no single, one-size-fits all solution to building water resilience and security. To address the challenges specific to the local context, we have developed and implemented a comprehensive 7-step watershed management process at our sites located in water-stressed areas. The process focuses on convening stakeholders, identifying specific local water challenges and potential solutions, implementing agreed solutions with governance and financing mechanisms in place, communicating progress and measuring impact.

Bucaramanga, Colombia, is one of the locations where we are implementing this 7-step process. Read below to learn more about the specific water challenges the region is facing and how we're partnering with others and engaging with consumers to address them.

The Challenge

The High Andean Wetland of Santurbán (known as the Páramo de Santurbán) in northeastern Colombia is an essential source of freshwater for two million people in two Colombian states: Santander and North Santander. This natural ecosystem collects, stores and distributes water collected from rainfall, regulating water flows by retaining, purifying and replenishing moisture and water in the soil. This area is under increasing pressure from agriculture, mining and deforestation, which is impacting water security for the communities, environment and the economy that depend on it. Climate change and resulting higher temperatures further threaten the ecosystem and reduce its effectiveness in regulating water availability and quality. This analysis constituted steps 1-3 of our 7-step watershed management process.

The strategic challenge is to increase natural water regulation by strengthening the ability of the ecosystem and its buffer zone to store water during rainy seasons and discharge it slowly during drier periods. Keeping a more constant base flow reduces run-off during the wet season and provides greater water availability during the rest of the year.  In Santander the páramo feeds key rivers such as the Tona, Suratá and Frío rivers and in North Santander it feeds the headwaters of the important Zulia and Pamplonita rivers.

What We're Doing

In 2016, a group of stakeholders joined together to catalyze collective action on these water challenges and established a water fund to coordinate efforts. Alianza Biocuenca was created to protect the endangered wetland region and the broader watershed. In response, businesses, international funds, non-profit organizations, regional and national governments, local farmers and others have come together to preserve the páramo. Founding partners of Alianza Biocuenca included the German Cooperation for Sustainable Development (GIZ), Good Stuff International and Bavaria.

In 2018, Bavaria begun funding the implementation of miPáramo, a project previously designed by the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombia (SDC), Alianza Biocuenca, Corpornor (environmental authority), GIZ and Good Stuff International. The miPáramo project partners with local farmers living in the buffer zone of the High Andean Wetland of Santurbán. Through the partnership, the farmers sign voluntary conservation agreements, committing to preserve and restore the forest, and in return receive support for more sustainable and profitable farming.

Through training programs on topics such as the proper use of pesticides and fertilizers, miPáramo has strengthened local capabilities and consciousness around sustainable agricultural practices. This has allowed smallholder farmers to improve their production processes, expand their economic activities and receive incomes from more diverse sources. The project also led to the creation of a network of local leaders who are now change agents within their communities. 

The objectives of miPáramo are to:

  • Protect and restore the buffer zone of the High Andean Wetland to enhance water regulation
  • Establish a platform to develop mechanisms to invest in conservation measures, as well as schemes to sustainably use natural resources
  • Increase living standards of inhabitants in the highlands, encourage their participation in environmental protection activities and support them in transitioning to sustainable practices
  • Develop sustainable practices for the integrated management of the watershed to improve the conservation of the páramo by incorporating local communities in land planning exercises

These efforts constitute steps 4-6 in our watershed managed process, through active watershed project implementation, collective governance and finance and strategic communication with stakeholders.

Measuring Impact

The current public goal of the project is to increase water availability by protecting 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) by 2025. But already we and our partners involved in this project are setting our sights even higher and a roadmap is to be designed to protect nearly 40,000 hectares in this High Andean Wetland.

Our 2025 Water Stewardship goal is focused on measurable improvement in water quality and availability, so with our partners we are also measuring outcome indicators to determine the impact of these efforts (step 7 of our watershed management process). Key performance indicators for this project will be minimum daily annual flow, yearly average flow and volume of transported sediments.

With financial support from SDC, GIZ, Corpornor, Alianza Biocuenca and Good Stuff International and in partnership with Montpellier University we supported the miPáramo project in the development of an isotopic methodology. Water samples were collected systematically in water springs at 2,200 meters above sea level to model the water cycle phases and to estimate the High Andean Wetland's role in water regulation. The isotope measurements indicated that water is produced over 3,200 meters above sea level, with the implication that the base flow of water is regulated primarily by the High Andean ecosystem rather than rainfall.

Furthermore, hydrological control systems were installed in two paired watersheds to validate the results. This method was implemented to define the base flow and calculate the impact of rain events. This informed understanding of the hydrological response of the micro watersheds' changes depending on changing vegetation and land use.

From 2018 to 2020, the water fund reported the following measurable impact:

  • More than 4,761 hectares (more than 11,764 acres) of forest protected
  • Over 266,200 trees planted on 445 hectares in the process of being restored
  • Sustainable agriculture incentivized on more than 821 hectares (more than 2,000 acres)
  • 1,066 families in 12 municipalities benefitted

Based on the results of the hydrological model, it can be estimated that the water volume regulated by a well-preserved High Andean ecosystem varies between 500 and 1,000 cubic meters per hectare per year.

Looking ahead

Going forward, we aim to continue to strengthen the collective efforts of Alianza Biocuenca and build on the successes of the water fund by including more partners located in Santander in these efforts.

Consumers are another key stakeholder group and we have engaged them in support of the effort. The miPáramo project is funded in part by proceeds from the sale of Agua Zalva, a purpose-led water brand launched by Bavaria in 2019. For each bottle purchased, one square meter of wetland is protected. To date more than 12 million bottles (made with 100% recycled PET plastic) have been sold, protecting more than 12 million square meters of wetland or approximately 1,140 hectares. In 2020, Agua Zalva won the World Beverage Innovation Awards in the category of Best CSR/Sustainability Initiative from among 229 competitors. We aim to build on this model as an innovative and sustainable source of financing for watershed protection.

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