The Nature Conservancy is proud to be a supporting partner for Blog Action Day 2010 — and here’s our blog on this year’s theme: how to increase the amount of clean, safe water for people and nature.
Water does not simply emerge from a well or a tap, any more than food is produced on grocery store shelves.
Water must first fall as rain or snow and then move across land and through soil before arriving at a place where people can access it: a well, a river, or a reservoir. And just as the path that food (such as spinach) takes is critical to its safety — how it’s grown, harvested, stored, handled, transported and cleaned — water’s path is critical to its cleanliness and safety.
One of the best ways to ensure that water is clean and safe is to make sure it follows a path through a watershed that is healthy (a watershed is the area of land that contributes water to a river, lake, or reservoir).
On a recent trip to Mexico I saw firsthand how degraded land leads to degraded water. While hiking to a river that would soon be dammed to create a water-supply reservoir, I passed a tributary stream with a pallid gray flow, steep eroding banks, and that was choked with garbage.
The main river itself was a suspicious green from blooms of algae feasting on the buffet of nutrients running off of farms. This unhealthy water reflected a strained and depleted watershed, one with multiple sources of pollution that, along with degraded soils and vegetation, could no longer produce clean water. Starting with such poor-quality water will challenge the treatment and delivery system to provide something safe for people.
Recognizing that a healthy watershed is a prerequisite for healthy water, The Nature Conservancy and partners are investing in water funds throughout Latin America. A water fund provides a mechanism for major users of water, such as water supply utilities and large companies, to invest in conservation and management practices that will protect and restore the watersheds that produce their water.
But protecting nature isn’t enough when it comes to water.
The world faces a water crisis. While popular media often characterizes water as the “new oil” — the resource that will spark future wars — the grim reality needs no sensationalism. Simply put, billions of people lack access to clean water or proper sanitation.
To address this crisis, governments, multilateral development agencies and foundations will invest significant funds in engineered solutions — dams, reservoirs, pipes, pumps and more — to provide clean water. While these solutions are both urgent and important, efforts to address this crisis cannot ignore or imperil natural ecosystems in the process.
This plea might sound like an environmentalist’s misallocation of concern — tut-tutting about safe driving practices to an ambulance driver. But if that ambulance strikes a pedestrian while rushing someone else to the emergency room, the medical value of the trip has clearly has been compromised. And someone needs to advocate for diligent maintenance of the ambulance, lest it run out of gas or blow a tire on its way to the rescue.
What I’m getting at here is that natural systems provide immense direct benefits to people — and, during development of new water infrastructure like dams, wells and treatment plants, we need to carefully maintain the health of that connection.
For instance, dam development can inflict unintended major impacts on riverside communities and people’s livelihoods. A recent paper by the Conservancy’s Brian Richter and co-authors reports that hundreds of millions of people living downstream of dams have been impacted by dam-induced changes to rivers, such as declining productivity of fish and riverside agriculture. Solving water crises for some while creating food or livelihood crises for others constitutes flawed progress.
So while we strive to address urgent needs for clean water, we need to:
- Make sure the ambulance is well-maintained. Recognize that natural ecosystems are the ultimate source of clean water and responsibly manage watersheds through mechanisms such as water funds to reliably maintain that provision.
- Make sure the ambulance doesn’t strike pedestrians. Prevent destruction of the other benefits that natural systems, such as river floodplains, provide to people.
How do we do this? By convincing those planning and deciding on new water infrastructure to consider and protect the full range of values provided by rivers, such as food from fisheries and crops nourished by riverine water and nutrients.
Conservation and development organizations, water users, government agencies and scientists are all working to develop the tools to meet this challenge, including water funds and certification of sustainable water practices. While there are reasons for hope, the challenge remains enormous…and begs for serious focus and investment.
The staggering statistics of how many people lack access to water quantify the scope of the crisis but, due to the numbing effect of numbers, the statistics are abstract and impersonal for most people. To truly feel the crisis, view this video and photo essay from the organization charity: water.
(Top image: Girls carrying water in India. Image credit: Tom Maisey through a Creative Commons license. Lower image: a polluted and degraded stream in rural Mexico. It hadn’t rained in days, so the water color does not reflect short-term turbidity following a storm. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC.)