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Planting Trees Brings Clean Water to The Dominican Republic

Credit: Amber Cove/Flickr Photos

On July 28, 2010, under Resolution 64/292, the UN General Assembly recognised the right to clean water and sanitation as a basic human right. However, availability and access to fresh water supply, particularly in developing and underdeveloped countries, are becoming increasingly scarce. One region experiencing the effects of water scarcity is the Dominican Republic, where deforestation, mismanagement of resources, and increased demands have led to increased water scarcity and droughts. It leads to a regional water crisis. One solution the country has implemented to reduce scarcity and increase the supply of clean water is the afforestation of previously deforested and degraded areas.

The Dominican Republic is a country located on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. It is home to pristine beaches, fertile land, and luscious forests, making it one of the most naturally diverse islands in the Caribbean. Boasting serene landscapes as far as the eye can see, you might think the people living there live in paradise. However, in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, it's not uncommon for people to go without water for weeks at a time. 

Historically, the country has been able to rely on its natural water supplies, which are regulated and refilled by the island's two annual wet seasons, one from April to June and a heavier wet season from September to November. However, in recent decades, this bountiful water supply has diminished rapidly. Chole Oliver Viola, a senior water supply and sanitation specialist at the World Bank, stated, “Economic and population growth are putting great pressure on the Dominican Republic's traditionally bountiful water resources.” Coupled with decades of deforestation for cattle grazing, mining, tourism, and farming, seasonal natural disasters like storms and hurricanes and mismanagement of water resources have resulted in a large-scale water crisis, according to Franciso Núñez, the central Caribbean director of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organisation specialising in water and land conservation. 

According to the ‘Noticias de la República Dominica', due to an insufficient supply of water, local communities are forced to buy water trucks from the ‘Federación Nacional de Transporte Dominicano’ (Fenatrado) that deliver water to impoverished neighbourhoods. In the Dominican Republic, up to 40% of households spend 12% of their income on bottled water. This falls under the responsibility of the Corporation of Aqueducts and Sewerage of Santo Domingo (CAASD). Truck owners must pay RD$100 or RD$200 depending on the size of their truck, to access water from cisterns controlled by the CAASD. Due to the rental cost of the trucks being around RD$1,900, water for local communities costs between RD$1,500 and RD$2,800. Although the CAASD has its tankers and supplies free water, due to drought in the region, they are struggling to keep supply up with increasing demand. 

In 2011, Núñez founded the Latin America Water Funds Partnerships, a group of 24 water funds across Latin America partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank, FEMSA Foundation, The Global Environment Facility, The Nature Conservancy and The International Climate Initiative. With their help and large-scale investments from global conglomerates like The Coca-Cola Co. they bring in millions of dollars and have helped invest in water projects in the Caribbean and South America.

Núñez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, spearheaded the two water funds in the Dominican Republic: the Santa Domingo and Yaque Del Norte water funds. According to Núñez, water supply isn’t a major issue due to there being plenty of rain in mountainous areas. Instead, nature-based solutions were needed to retain water in the ecosystem during heavy rainfall. To achieve this, a nature-based solution was used. Trees were planted to increase tree canopy. Trees ensure water is captured, maintained, and managed efficiently within the ecosystem, resulting in an increased and more sustainable water supply. 

Surrounding many rivers in the Dominican Republic, especially the Yaque del Norte River, a lot of agricultural practices have put stress on water resources. Núñez stated, “There's an understanding now that if we want to fix the water crisis, we need to rebuild the watersheds." The Nature Conservancy together with Plant with Purpose, a non-profit aimed at reversing global poverty and environmental damage, have been regenerating and reforesting watersheds.

After obtaining the consent of the small-scale farmers residing in these rural areas, trees were planted on both farmland and forest land. Economic incentives were used to encourage farmers to plant trees on their farmland. Cash crops like coffee or cacao were planted beneath tree canopies through the process of agroforestry, a land management technique that mixes trees and crops, bringing more money into rural areas.

 Agroforestry has also improved water resiliency and prevent soil erosion, increasing water retention in the watershed. According to One Tree Planted, an environmental non-profit tree planting charity, “Every tree planted in this project will help revitalise the soil, promote biodiversity, and stabilise weather patterns.” As trees draw water from their roots up to their leaves, it releases water into the atmosphere as water vapours through the process of transpiration creating clouds and its micro-climate, which leads to local rainfall. Furthermore, trees help slow down rainfall so more water soaks into the ground into the water table, subsequently increasing groundwater supply. The canopies provided by trees also keep rivers cool and protected, slowing down evaporation rates.  

The project aims to increase the amount of rainfall held in watersheds which would be used for drinking, agriculture, electricity, water and sanitation. The project is expected to benefit 60% of the country, especially those living in areas of water stress and as of 2023, the project has trained 370 Dominicans in water conservation techniques and restored 8,000 acres of watersheds.

The water funds in the Dominican Republic are one of Latin America's best examples of cooperative environmental initiatives. Increasing the number of trees in the country’s watersheds. As well as integrating farmers into conservationism has worked and has improved the ecosystem compared to the start of the water funds in 2011. The nature-based solutions Núñez has implemented in the Dominican Republic have increased groundwater water supply, improved vegetation, and improved once-degraded areas, bringing life back to the areas. However, the country’s water infrastructure is still poor. For these watersheds to be used efficiently and sustainably, better systems need to be put in place to deliver water to communities living in areas of water stress. Núñez views his impact as small, and in the next decade, he hopes to double the number of acres restored.



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