The term “Guianas” is an Amerindian expression signifying: “land of many waters.” The Guianas river, creeks and freshwater sources contain 10-15% of the world’s freshwater volume. On a per capita basis, Guyana and Suriname are ranked second and third, respectively, in the world for freshwater availability.
Guianas’ freshwater ecosystems function, in close connection with forests, as important sources of livelihoods and income for local populations. Communities depend on rivers for their fish, which is often their most important protein source. But also for drinking water, bathing and transport. For the wider regional and even global population our freshwater sources means access to clean water, food security and a means of income. And as the Guianas are the land of many water, our rivers are an imporant part of the culture.
Our rivers and creeks can only support all these ecosystem services when they are healthy and when biodiversity is in balance. However, extensive mercury contamination due to gold mining, river dredging and pollution of solid waste, like plastic, pose a big threat to freshwater ecosystems in the Guianas.
Mercury used in artisinal and small-scale goldmining is the biggest source of pollution of our rivers and creeks. Already in 2014, more than 9,000 km of waterways were in direct contact with mining sites, which is approximately 6.5 times more than in 2001. Mercury from gold mining disappears in huge quantities in the water. There the heavy metal is concentrated in high levels in fishes that are a main food source for local communities. Mercury poisoning poses serious health risks, ranging from neurological disorders, kidney failure, memory loss, degradation of vision and infertility. It may also harm the mental development of unborn children. Multiple studies show that people in gold minig areas in the Guianas already have dangerous levels of mercury in their body.
Groundwater systems are directly reacting to changing rainfall and evaporation
patterns. It is expected that wet periods become wetter and dry periods drier. The expected decrease of rainfall and increase of evaporation during dry periods may have negative impacts on groundwater systems and therefore on baseflows of streams and rivers and environmental groundwater flows to wetlands. Heavier rainfalls already cause floodings in the interior with sometimes severe consequences for local communities.
Agricultural and infrastructure expansion and urbanization (including roads, housing and industrial zones – and accompanying waste generation) are still ranked as potential and medium threats in the Guianas. Underlying these threats are poor integrated land use planning, and conflicting policy directives, and lack of good information and data.
Poor solid waste management is causing increasing amounts of plastic to end up in the environment, especially in rivers and creeks. From there it flows in large quantaties into the oceans, where it can seriously harm and kill marine life such as sea turtles, dolhpins and whales. Over time the plastic is fragmented in tiny pieces, socalled microplastics, which end up in fish species that are caught for human consumption. So, eventually plastics also end up in our body. The longer term negative health effects are still largely unknown. However, it is clear that every person already has microplastics in their body, through fish consumption, drinking water and even the air.
To safeguard freshwater ecosysems WWF-Guianas aims for a reduction of mercury-use of 50% in gold mining in 2030. To that end we successfully advocated for the ratification of the Minamata Convention in Suriname and Guyana, together with other civil society organizations. The convention is to protect human health and the environment from the release of mercury.
Now that the Minamata Convention has been ratified we continue to work with partners for mercuryfree gold mining practices to ensure freshwater ecosystems provide safe water for people and nature.In the coming period, mercury-free gold mining practices will be showcased as an alternative for gold miners. We will alo continue to advocate for improvement of mining legislation environment and strengthening of government institutions that implement the mercury phase out, that is laid down in the Minamata convention.
In Guyana we also support the government and stakeholders in the creation of effective freshwater management and governance. We will work to reduce the threats and impacts of freshwater habitats by promoting nature based solutions, to prevent large scale developments, such as inftrascture, to harm the landscape and freshwater flows.