Mak­ing wa­ter con­ser­va­tion pay

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Call it a sign of the times. Rarely a month passes in which a wa­ter cri­sis does not make head­lines some­where in the world. In early Au­gust, an al­gal bloom in Lake Erie, the re­sult of agri­cul­tural runoff, con­tam­i­nated drink­ing wa­ter in Toledo, Ohio. In Septem­ber, the reser­voirs in China’s He­nan prov­ince dried up, leav­ing crops to shrivel and forc­ing some res­i­dents to drink from pud­dles on the ground. In late Oc­to­ber, the city of Hy­der­abad, In­dia, dis­cov­ered that its wa­ter sup­ply might be di­verted next year for agri­cul­tural uses up­stream, leav­ing some 8 mln peo­ple to won­der where they will find the 190 mln gal­lons of wa­ter they need ev­ery day.

City of­fi­cials usu­ally re­spond to such sup­ply crises by up­grad­ing their wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, namely, drilling, damming, and lay­ing pipes. Ev­ery day, the world’s largest 100 ci­ties move 3.2 mln cu­bic me­ters of wa­ter more than 5,700 kilo­me­ters to ad­dress lo­cal wa­ter short­ages or prob­lems with pol­lu­tion. But this is an ex­pen­sive so­lu­tion, one that only the wealth­i­est ci­ties can af­ford. It also puts city man­agers at odds with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, who cam­paign for re­stric­tions on de­vel­op­ment to ease pres­sure on forests and wa­ter­sheds. For­tu­nately, it is not the only op­tion.

Na­ture, it turns out, can play an im­por­tant – and so far largely un­tapped – role in wa­ter de­liv­ery and treat­ment. Pro­tect­ing wa­ter at its source can be cheaper and more ef­fi­cient than treat­ing it after it has al­ready been pol­luted. In a new re­port, my col­leagues at The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, the C40 Cli­mate Lead­er­ship Group, and the In­ter­na­tional Wa­ter As­so­ci­a­tion show that in­vest­ing in for­est pro­tec­tion, re­for­esta­tion, stream bank restora­tion, im­proved agri­cul­tural prac­tices, and for­est-fire man­age­ment can re­duce the amount of pol­lu­tants flow­ing into sup­plies of drink­ing wa­ter.

The re­port, “The Ur­ban Wa­ter Blue­print,” analy­ses the state of wa­ter sup­plies in 534 ci­ties and 2,000 wa­ter­sheds to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive over­view of the po­ten­tial nat­u­ral so­lu­tions that can be in­te­grated with tra­di­tional in­fra­struc­ture. The re­sults are com­pelling. Wa­ter qual­ity for more than 700 mln peo­ple could be sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved by adopt­ing con­ser­va­tion prac­tices in wa­ter­sheds. And at least one in four ci­ties ex­am­ined would find such in­ter­ven­tions fi­nan­cially vi­able, based solely on sav­ings from avoided wa­ter-treat­ment costs.

In some places, such mea­sures have al­ready been in­tro­duced. Farm­ers near Beijing, for ex­am­ple, have been paid to con­vert cro­p­lands from rice to corn. Rice pad­dies need to be con­stantly flooded, and, be­cause they are of­ten lo­cated on steep slopes, this leads to sig­nif­i­cant runoff of fer­tilis­ers and sed­i­ment. Shift­ing to corn not only re­duces wa­ter con­sump­tion; it also cuts the amount of pol­lu­tion that reaches city res­i­dents down­stream. The pro­gramme costs about $1,330 per hectare of farm­land to im­ple­ment, but pro­duces $2,020 per hectare of ben­e­fits.

In Brazil, a wa­ter-con­ser­va­tion fund is work­ing to re­store the Cantareira wa­ter­shed, the source of 50% of Sao Paulo’s wa­ter. The area has lost 70% of its orig­i­nal for­est cover, and sed­i­ment from erod­ing hill­sides has clogged the city’s reser­voir, jeop­ar­dis­ing the wa­ter sup­ply of Brazil’s largest city. Un­der the new pro­gram, farm­ers and ranch­ers are paid $120 per hectare to re­for­est or ter­race their fields. So far, about 3,500 hectares have been planted with trees or put un­der im­proved soil-man­age­ment prac­tices. Re­for­est­ing another 14,200 hectares could cut the con­cen­tra­tion of sed­i­ment in the wa­ter­shed by half.

The sav­ings pro­duced by th­ese pro­grams should be viewed in the con­text of the $90 bln per year that ci­ties spend to build treat­ment plants, pipes, and other com­po­nents of wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture. The au­thors of “The Ur­ban Wa­ter Blue­print” have cal­cu­lated that more than $18 bln could be pro­duc­tively di­rected to­ward con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, sav­ing ci­ties money and cre­at­ing a new mar­ket com­pa­ra­ble in size to the mar­ket for the wa­ter sec­tor’s ex­ist­ing tech­nolo­gies.

But if th­ese so­lu­tions are to be adopted at the nec­es­sary scale, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and city of­fi­cials alike will have to ex­pand the scope of their tra­di­tional ac­tiv­i­ties. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists will have to embrace the idea that con­ser­va­tion does not only mean pro­tect­ing pris­tine land­scapes. It also some­times re­quires the im­prove­ment of lands un­der pro­duc­tion. In­deed, th­ese are the ar­eas where some of the most cost­ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions are to be found. Wa­ter qual­ity would be im­proved for more than 600 mln peo­ple if the farms and ranches op­er­at­ing within their wa­ter­sheds limited runoff and re­stored stream banks.

City of­fi­cials, mean­while, need to think beyond their mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties’ bound­aries. The 100 largest ci­ties oc­cupy much less than 1% of the planet’s land, but the wa­ter­sheds on which they de­pend ac­count for a full 12%. Be­cause many ci­ties share wa­ter re­sources, cross-ju­ris­dic­tional fi­nanc­ing mech­a­nisms and a shared sense of com­mit­ment will be needed in or­der to pro­tect and re­store nat­u­ral sources of clean wa­ter. Th­ese part­ner­ships will re­quire the co­op­er­a­tion of a broad va­ri­ety of in­ter­est groups, all of which will have to be per­suaded to support ef­forts to im­prove the wa­ter sup­ply. Farm­ers and ranch­ers should be at the top of the en­gage­ment list.

Land use and wa­ter se­cu­rity are firmly linked. By em­brac­ing both nat­u­ral and tra­di­tional wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, ci­ties will not only se­cure their fu­ture wa­ter sup­ply; they will also re­shape our planet’s land­scape for the bet­ter.

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