There’s lots of discussion and debate these days about the concept of “ecosystem services,” the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide to society. Many advocates say that we must change the conversation about conservation, and that ecosystem services is a key to that. They argue that we need to start talking about the ways that ecosystems benefit people, because polls are indicating that “protecting nature for nature’s sake” isn’t resonating strongly enough in a world more concerned about the weak economy, poverty, war and other social challenges.
Critics of this approach argue that the concept of ecosystem services is too wonky and geeky for non-technical audiences. They make the point that talking about the need to protect watersheds and wetlands because they purify our water supplies will never arouse passion in the way that a photo of a majestic white ibis in the marsh can.
Do we conserve nature because our minds tell us to do it, or is it our heart that moves us?
One thing is for certain: At least 2 billion people on our planet depend upon rivers directly in their day-to-day lives. Rivers feed them. Rivers grow fish that people eat. When rivers like the Zambezi or the Mekong flood, they naturally irrigate and fertilize floodplains where millions of people plant an amazing variety of crops. They have been doing this for thousands of years, practicing the knowledge of soils, water and crops passed through countless generations.
These 2 billion people don’t care if you call what nature provides them “ecosystem services.” They call it food.
Tragically, just-published research co-authored by myself, Conservancy scientist Carmen Revenga and others suggests that dams have affected at least 500 million of those river-dependent people. People suffer when dams flat-line the naturally fluctuating river flows that have for millennia set the rhythms of fish, crops, and human culture.
I know what this suffering looks like. Just last year, I saw it in the children living downstream of Kariba Dam on the Zambezi. Starvation has bent their legs and drawn their skin tight on their ribcages.
Those images make me very sad. But knowing that these impacts could have been avoided really pisses me off. Check out our paper in this month’s special issue of the journal Water Alternatives. We specify three simple and effective ways to fix or avoid these problems.
The clock is ticking: There are tens of thousands of new dams on the drawing boards for the developing regions of the world.
(Image: Children near the Zambezi’s Kariba Dam. Image credit: Brian Richter/TNC.)