I started my first-ever blog post with this story, but it bears repeating to frame up a story about sewage, flame and clean water.

The other night I was tucking my daughter into bed and, as she tends to do, she launched into a conversation. These quiet moments foster the best discussions and, besides, they have the advantage (for her) of delaying the goodnight process.

She started asking what different people in our family did for a job and why they do what they do. “Why is Grammy a principal?” and “Why is Aunt Amy a doctor?”

I decided to test her awareness of post-graduate degrees and interjected, “You know, Daddy’s a doctor too,” referencing my Ph.D. in ecology, inwardly smirking as I’m so rarely referred to as “Dr. Opperman.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “but you’re not the kind of doctor that makes people feel better.”

Wisdom from the mouth of babes: conservation’s challenge in a nutshell.

What are we actually doing in conservation? Are we making people’s lives better, or are we pursuing an interesting, but ultimately marginal, endeavor that only directly benefits those who can afford to travel to distant parks or buy colorful coffee-table books?

Those of us working in conservation believe fervently it’s the former but worry that too many believe the latter.

In these days of tight budgets we’re increasingly asked to prove conservation’s direct value to people. If challenged, I emphasize that conservation produces a broad spectrum of benefits and I’m passionate that even what might seem frivolous on the surface — wild open spaces, rare animals, or wildlife spectacles — actually have deeply important spiritual and psychological benefits to people, benefits springing from a continuum that starts in our own gardens and neighborhood parks and ends on the Serengeti and Everglades (and we can’t forget that these majestic places are also often someone’s backyard or neighborhood). But let’s save those types of benefits for another bedtime story.

For this one, let me focus on those benefits that can be easily measured economically and are obvious to nearly anyone. These include the flood protection provided by floodplains, mangroves and oyster reefs and the critical role that healthy natural areas, like forests and wetlands, play in providing steady flows of clean water.

To help people appreciate that natural areas are crucial for maintaining clean water, conservationists challenge people to answer the question, “Where does your water come from?” The premise is that if people understand where their water originates, and that forests and wetlands help keep it clean, then they will support efforts to protect those sources.

In Latin America, The Nature Conservancy has been promoting mechanisms — Water Funds, or Water Producers in Brazil — that forge this bond between those who benefit from clean water and the sources of that water. Through these mechanisms, major users of water, including breweries, bottlers and water-supply companies, contribute to a fund that then invests in efforts to protect or restore water-source areas.

On a trip to Brazil last year, the Conservancy’s Anita Diederichsen gave me a tour of a water producer project that’s located in the municipal water-supply watershed for Rio de Janeiro, a bustling city of 14 million. Camera and camcorder in hand, I mentally sketched a range of scenes I wanted to capture, visually documenting hillside erosion, the integrity of streambanks and the amount of fine sediment collecting in the pools of tributary streams.

Thank goodness Anita also took me to see something a little more broadly accessible and, for the purposes of storytelling, more useful than the USLE (that’s the Universal Soil Loss Equation, FYI).

We visited Lídice, a small community along the Rio das Pedras (or Stone River), a tributary to the river that flows into one of Rio’s water-supply reservoirs. Standing in João Conceicão Dos Santos’ simple kitchen, I found myself entranced by a dancing orange flame, a flame that represented cleaner water, a healthier river and a better life for a rural community.

The flame was the surprising answer to a question that we can think of the somewhat-less-pleasant kid brother of where does your water come from? That is, where does your poop go?

In this small community, sewage pipes from homes previously lead directly to the stream (pictured below). ITPA, the Conservancy’s partner in the watershed project, had invested a small portion of the Water Producer funds into a micro sewage treatment plant. Now, sewage from the homes is directed into an underground biogas fermentation chamber, which treats the sewage and produces a biogas, methane, that is piped back into the homes.

Sewage pipes flow directly into the river

João listed a range of benefits from this project. While the community still uses propane, they need to travel far to pick it up and it’s not always available. They now have a dependable source of fuel for heating water and they were launching a small business using the free fuel to dry plaintains to sell.

Perhaps most importantly, when the creek floods (as all creeks do) and the water laps up against their front doors, they now know they’re not sloshing around in their own sewage. Word about the project was traveling fast and generating a great deal of interest among landowners in the potential benefits of participating in the Water Producer program.

This project was small but clearly scalable. The flow of untreated sewage into streams that previously characterized Lídice is widespread in this region. And now Rio is channeling a dedicated source of funding to improve the quality of their water source.  These micro sewage treatment projects can be replicated across the region, cleaning the rivers for both aquatic life and for the city downstream that depends on that water, and improving the lives of people in rural areas.

And it also provides a nice story of how conservation helps people feel better.

[Top image: Flame from biogas. Bottom image: Sewage pipes flow directly into the river. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Jeff,

    it is great to hear that your experience at the Water Funds in Brazil is bringing additional tought related to the extend that our conservation work can reach!

  2. A beautiful story, beautifully told!

  3. Jeff,
    Finally! Some documentation about sewage treatment strategies as part of our watershed conservation work. This definitely shows the benefits-to-people side of the equation more tangibly and immediately than reduced sedimentation which takes a lot longer to document.

  4. Love this story and so will my children. I will look into similar projects here in Peru because it is definitely worth repeating to my friends in rural development, ecology and in our association (as APTAE (Peruvian Association of Adventure travel and Ecotourism), we participate in projects that involve rural communities).
    The story will also pass on from my children to their friends and to their friends to raise awareness.
    Thank you for this!

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