Nature is our strongest ally in ensuring global water security

UN Water Sanitation 2018

Women who were internally displaced by the ongoing drought in Somaliland receive water at a UNICEF-supported water distribution point in Laaca village near Gabiley, Somaliland. UN Photo/ Omar Abdisalan.

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Giulio Boccaletti, Chief Strategy Officer and Global Managing Director for Water, The Nature Conservancy.

Cape Town has many identities, including tourist mecca, economic hub and biodiversity hotspot. But its newest identity as poster child for the global water crisis might eclipse the rest. The city’s extraordinary efforts may keep its taps flowing – for now – but the emergency is far from over. Other cities are now wondering what Cape Town’s experience means for them. Could it have been avoided? How? Will similar crises unfold around the world?

In 2014, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were under the same intense spotlight. They implemented water rationing, with punitive tariffs for over-use and residents hoarding water. That Brazil’s critical drought is largely neglected in the Cape Town narrative is a cautionary tale for both commentators and actors in the current drama. Rain in late 2015 and early 2016 brought respite to Brazil and an end to the alarmist headlines, but the underlying management and infrastructure problems endure.

The politics of water are highly complex. Ultimately, it is about how value and welfare are distributed to industry, agriculture and citizens. Water crises occur when there is a failure by institutions to appreciate the value in having access to reliable water; a failure of governance to ensure that value is allocated both productively and equitably; and a failure of infrastructure to deliver it.

Everyone knows that water is essential for life and nearly every aspect of human endeavour. The UN Sustainable Development Goals call out water security in Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, but water security is fundamental to achieving any further kind of sustainable economic and human development. None of the other goals – addressing poverty, hunger and health; mitigating and adapting to climate change; providing affordable energy; creating more sustainable cities and communities – can be achieved without safe and secure water supplies.

However, in the economics of water security, water is usually the vehicle of the value, rather than its source. The infrastructure and institutions established to deliver water when and where it is needed determine how economic and social value are created and distributed. It is reliable access to water of a certain level of quality that we value, not just the water molecule itself.

This begs the question: are we investing in the most valuable solutions? Most communities tend to rely only on “grey infrastructure” to deliver water security, such as reservoirs, aqueducts, and treatment plants. But experience shows that natural infrastructure, such as the healthy forests, wetlands and river ecosystems from which we source our water supplies, also delivers value.

Widespread degradation of watersheds around the world is leading to impaired downstream water quality, and diminished and less reliable flows. Deforestation, poor agricultural practices and other unsustainable land uses have caused moderate to high degradation in 40% of the world’s urban watersheds. Investments in these landscapes should be part of a comprehensive approach to water security.

Every city has a different stock of natural capital. The unique ecosystem of the south Western Cape region, home to some of the greatest plant biodiversity on the planet, is threatened by competition from invasive woody plants. The latter are also responsible for drawing up 38 billion litres of water annually from the watersheds that contribute to Cape Town’s municipal water supplies. Managing the ecology of the watershed should be integral to ensuring long-term water security.

The Greater Cape Town Water Fund, established by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in cooperation with partners in the NGO sector and the business community, is working with landowners to remove these invasive species and to restore and protect wetlands and riparian areas that are important for water recharge and supply. As some towns in the watershed are facing up to 40% unemployment, the work has even greater potential value in the jobs created.

In the Upper Tana River basin, upstream from Nairobi, Kenya, increased agriculture in the watershed has resulted in heavy runoff and sedimentation in the reservoirs that supply Nairobi’s water. This is causing reduced flows and higher treatment costs. There, as in Cape Town, improving the condition of the watershed should be part of the solution set that delivers valuable water security. By providing education and assistance to farmers, and helping them to implement practices such as cover crops that reduce runoff, TNC is helping to ensure cleaner, healthier flows to the city. But the same practices that reduce runoff can also improve soil health and increase agricultural yields for these farmers. The value is greater than just water delivery.

Nairobi is just one example of the integrated value of source watershed protection. By restoring forests and working with farmers and ranchers to improve their land management practices, water quality could be improved and water treatment costs reduced in 80% of more than 4,000 downstream cities, shows research from TNC. This would serve 1.4 billion people around the world. We estimate that for about one in six of these cities – that’s roughly 690 cities serving more than 433 million people globally – the cost of these conservation activities could be fully offset through water treatment savings alone. This indicates that investments in nature are amongst the cheapest option for water security.

For most of the others, the return on investment depends on valuing outcomes beyond water security. Improved farming practices can provide more food and income for rural communities, as in Kenya. Restoring forests improves aquifer recharge while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Managing overgrown forests to control wildfire protects water supplies from heavy sediment loads and secures local communities, while also creating new sustainable forestry jobs. By providing this broad range of benefits, source water protection becomes a vehicle for value potentially far greater than that of the water itself.

A unique confluence of factors has led to the present situation in Cape Town. It requires a combination of institutional fixes, both regulatory and economic, and investments in infrastructure solutions, both natural and engineered, to solve the city’s ongoing challenges. Still, it is an important reminder of both how vulnerable cities can be to failure in water systems and management, and our need to think creatively about how we solve these challenges. The UN has set ambitious targets in the SDGs to facilitate access to safe water and sanitation. Better understanding how nature can offer integrated water, food and climate solutions is one of our best opportunities for unlocking the investment needed to meet these goals.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Ηealth’s foundation is falling apart: what can we do about it?

A Monday to watch the final act of a Greek tragedy; will there be catharsis or more fear?

Human rights chief calls for international probe on Venezuela, following ‘shocking accounts of extrajudicial killings’

Statistics show the ugly face of youth training schemes

Young? You should work out the entrepreneurial heart before the mind

3 charts that show how attitudes to climate science vary around the world

This alliance aims to accelerate the adoption of inclusive, trusted and transparent AI worldwide

Guinea President Alpha Condé: “We must tackle the root causes of migration”

Unemployment worries spike around the world as coronavirus remains top global concern

Iraq: UN demining agency rejects desecration accusations, involving historic Mosul churches

Ramped-up emergency preparedness, part of ‘changing the DNA’ of the UN’s health agency

UPDATED: Guterres condemns armed attack against UN peacekeepers in Mali

Stigmatized, shunned and shamed, International Widows’ Day draws attention to their unique needs

Portugal: Budget MEPs back €4.66 m in job-search aid for 730 redundant workers

Hospitals among seven health centres attacked in Syria’s north-east

Bahamas: ‘Clock is ticking’ to help those who lost everything in Hurricane Dorian, says UN

Estonia: use robust growth to improve income equality and well-being

Haitian President at General Assembly calls for essential development aid as UN mission shifts away from peacekeeping

Rising human trafficking takes on ‘horrific dimensions’: almost a third of victims are children

One-in-five suffers mental health condition in conflict zones, new UN figures reveal

Idea of ‘homogenous’ Polish culture is a myth: UN human rights expert

Why a coronavirus vaccine takes over a year to produce – and why that is incredibly fast

The next decade is critical for the climate. Here’s how the circular economy can help

Shenzhen just made all its buses electric, and taxis are next

Is your business model fit for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Trump: Hostile to Europe, voids Tillerson’s “ironclad” ally pledge

Why Should We Care Universal Health Coverage?

UN expert criticizes States for ‘ganging up’ on Wikileaks’ Assange; warns against extradition, fearing ‘serious’ rights violations

EU-US Privacy Shield data exchange deal: US must comply by 1 September, say MEPs

Marginalized groups hit hardest by inequality and stigma in cities

EU should promote immigration as a humanitarian issue in order to provide a more permanent solution

You can make a difference in North Korea. Here’s how

Miguel Arias Cañete European Commission

EU should invest more in climate and not sit back on its laurels and watch

Business is a crucial partner in solving the mental health challenge

From social entrepreneurship to systems entrepreneurship: how to create lasting change

New technologies, artificial intelligence aid fight against global terrorism

MI6 chief calls for espionage 4.0 in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Trump’s MAGA policy remains unchanged as EU warns to impose additional retaliation tariffs on US products

Glaringly false reassurances about the repercussions of the EU-US free trade agreement

Intergenerational, intercultural, interactive – The 2015 edition of JADE’s Generations Club: Transforming Europe into an entrepreneurial society

5 amazing people fighting to save the oceans

“We are in Europe, but not of it”, from Churchill to Cameron: British Exceptionalism now threatens the entire EU Edifice

Wednesday’s Daily Brief: Diplomacy for Peace Day, #VaccinesWork, the cost of war on Afghans, tech and well-being

Business leaders join UN to rev up sustainable development investments

Media freedom: EP warns of attempts to silence critics and undermine pluralism

World ‘off track’ to meet most Sustainable Development Goals on hunger, food security and nutrition

COVID-19 practices are constantly changing – this app helps emergency doctors cope

India should ‘unlock’ freedom curbs in disputed Kashmir, urges UN human rights chief

Hatred ‘a threat to everyone’, urges Guterres calling for global effort to end xenophobia and ‘loathsome rhetoric’

Europe plans to send satellites into space to monitor CO2 emissions

International Women’s Day 2021: COVID-19 pandemic is a major challenge for gender equality

Reintegrating former rebels into civilian life a ‘serious concern’ in Colombia: UN Mission chief

1 million citizens try to create a new EU institution

An American duel in Brussels: Salesforce against Microsoft over Linkedin deal

Statement by President Tajani on US steel and aluminium duties

5 amazing schools that will make you wish you were young again

Australia now has 25 million people. Will it choose to keep growing?

What does ‘excess deaths’ mean – and can it give a clearer picture of the number of coronavirus fatalities?

As inequality grows, the UN fights for a fairer world

Here’s how blockchain could stop corrupt officials from stealing school lunches

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s