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Atlantic Rising: sea level rise threatens the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela

Will Lorimer

1st September, 2010

Rising sea levels are forcing the migration of indigenous peoples and threatening the freshwater ecosystem of catfish and piranha found in the Orinoco Delta near the coast of Venezuela

The Warao are a river people. Found in the Orinoco Delta, they live between the expansive ranches ringing the upper delta and the mangrove swamps of the coast. But sea level change is becoming an ever-pressing concern, threatening their way of life and unique knowledge they hold.

The 25,000 Warao who populate the delta have lived on the Orinoco for hundreds of years. Everything in their lives comes from the jungle, shaped with techniques passed down through generations. It is knowledge derived from a particular time, a particular relationship to the land and a particular set of resources.

The plants and animals on which the Warao depend - the Moriche palm, the Orinoco catfish, the piranha - are freshwater species. But 80km from the coast there is still a tidal range of one metre. Now the balance of the delta’s salinity is shifting.

'This last dry season has been very hard,' said Maria Cabrella who lives in the delta. 'The water was transparent, because of the salt coming in from the sea. And we are now seeing mangroves in places where we have never seen them before.'

Loss of freshwater


For the Warao, encroachment of salt water means a loss of drinking water. They have to search by boat to find fresh water.

If this trend continues the Warao will be forced to move, away from the water’s edge and away from the environment that has defined their culture.

Cabrella said: 'The salt water coming means the end of Warao culture.'

The Warao people will settle in villages and towns outside the delta. But the tragedy will be the loss of knowledge. The practices of weaving, fishing, hunting; the knowledge of how to translate the palms and trees into hammocks, houses, and canoes; the language and song which pertained to all of these things.

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