Beyond the Source: From Transactions to Transformation

Beyond the Source: From Transactions to Transformation

Report analyzes 4,000 cities to demonstrate the health, climate and biodiversity benefits of source water protection.

Conservation has traditionally been an exercise in localism. Trees are planted to restore local forests damaged by human activity, fire or floods. Grasses and shrubs are placed as buffers between agricultural fields and water sources to reduce soil and chemical runoff.

These nature-based activities are not typically viewed as critical components to solving global challenges like climate change or poverty alleviation, but they should. Around the world, cities are growing at an incredible pace, and along with that growth comes the need for more water to address sanitation, food and energy requirements.

But 40 percent of the land area around our water sources is degraded by deforestation, poor agricultural practices and development. Investment in nature can help cities and rural communities, companies and farmers, plan for a future where the needs of people and the environment can be balanced, especially when it comes to water.

Beyond the Source seeks to illustrate the value of nature to cities looking to secure water supplies while adding a number of benefits that address global challenges we face. By restoring forests and working with farmers and ranchers to improve their land management practices, we can improve water quality and reduce water treatment costs for four out of five downstream cities serving 1.4 billion people.

Those same activities can provide millions of rural farmers with new sources of income and food, grow trees that absorb carbon from our atmosphere and provide habitat for pollinators that are critical to our food production.

For roughly half of all cities, nature-based activities can be implemented for as little as US$2 per person annually. In order to realize the full value of natural infrastructure, we need to move beyond a “one activity for one purpose” mindset.

By “stacking” the benefits that each conservation activity provides, the financial case is strong for investing in natural solutions alongside gray infrastructure. In fact, one in six cities could recoup the costs through savings in annual water treatment costs alone. For utilities, local leaders, industries and policymakers, this will require looking beyond jurisdictional boundaries to form new partnerships and action plans.

Water funds, which enable downstream water users to jointly fund upstream land conservation and restoration, are one successful mechanism for securing improved water quality and in some cases more reliable flows. This holistic thinking is already driving source water protection activities in places such as Nairobi, New Mexico and Monterrey.

Water security is the greatest risk to our prosperity. We are making progress, but it is not enough. All those with a stake in water need to come together to address the challenges facing our finite water resources and invest in solutions at the scale and speed needed to tackle these problems. In doing so, we can generate much greater outcomes for people and nature.

Source: The Nature Conservancy
Editors:  Andrew Myers, Meghan Snow