Caring for Natural Water Supply Networks

YOLANDA KAKABADSE

 

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

 

We are living through extraordinary times. For the first time in history, humanity has started not only to become aware of its ability to transform life on Earth, but also to reflect seriously on the enormous possibilities and benefits of constructing a new economic ecosystem that will take people and their planet into account.

This is today one of the great priorities of the organization I preside: to help create an economic model based on a new way of measuring prosperity and success in which social welfare and natural capital will be indicators of an importance equal to or greater than income or consumption, which we currently use to measure the level of development.

We are therefore working all over the world for the recognition of the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems as the guarantee of a prosperous future that will provide food, water and energy for the nearly ten thousand million people who will be sharing our planet in 2050.

These are enormous challenges, and although major progress has been achieved, we know it is not enough and we can do a great deal more, especially if we manage to join forces and create alliances with governments, businesses and civil society, which is already mobilizing in strength around the planet. The key at this moment in history is to keep adding to these forces, and this has become the central focus of the WWF’s work for the next few years.

Fortunately, things are changing and we are promoting and supporting positive experiences around the world that show it is possible to satisfy requirements for such vital natural resource as water while preserving the health of the rivers, wetlands and lakes it comes from.

To be able to manage resources without destroying them and take the right decisions for improving our quality of life, we need more precise knowledge of their location and their evolution under our ecological footprint. At WWF, we have therefore been presenting the biannual Living Planet Report for nearly two decades, with data intended to help all of society, but especially political leaders, managements and businesses, to take more informed and responsible decisions on our environment.

The eleventh edition of this prestigious report was recently presented throughout the world. It contains an exhaustive scientific analysis carried out, as with the previous reports, in conjunction with the Global Footprint Network and the London Zoological Society, which permits us to measure the evolution of the planet’s health and natural riches.

With this report, we try to present an overall view of the state of nature throughout the world. To obtain this, we examine the tendencies of nearly 15,000 populations of over 3,700 species, which also allows us to display a reliable image of the state of the ecosystems they live in and the impacts caused by human beings.

Unfortunately, the conclusions cannot be more alarming. The world populations of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals diminished by nearly 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, and by 2020, if the current trend continues, they will foreseeably have diminished by up to 67 percent, the principal causes being the loss and degradation of habitats and the over-exploitation of species. This is endangering the basis of the natural resources and services that ecosystems offer us.

The most recent data on our ecological footprint also show that we are asphyxiating the planet for the first time in history, since in order to satisfy our current needs, humanity is consuming a quantity of natural resources equivalent to 1.6 planets. If we continue at this rate, we shall need 2.5 planets by 2050 to meet human demands.

There is no doubt that humanity’s relationship with nature and the planet has already changed profoundly, and that we have entered the Anthropocene era, an epoch marked by grand transformations on a planetary scale, noticeable within a single generation and unforeseeable in their consequences.

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One of the most disturbing and striking conclusions of our survey of nature is that there is a dramatic and alarming descent in populations of freshwater vertebrates, which have fallen by 81 percent, while populations of terrestrial species have diminished by 38 percent, and of marine species by 36 percent. This clearly shows the profound degradation of aquifers, rivers, lakes and wetlands around the world.

On this occasion, we have placed the emphasis of the Living Planet Report on the impact of the current food system on nature, showing it once again to be clearly unsustainable. Agriculture already occupies a third of the surface area of land on the planet, and is responsible for 69 percent of fresh water extractions. Together with the rest of the food system, it generates nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions. We can state without question that we produce badly and eat worse, and that we waste our food in spite of its cost, since a third of it ends up in the garbage.

The intensive use of water for agriculture, pollution, and the construction of massive infrastructures that are transforming and fragmenting rivers are the principal causes of the disappearance of biodiversity and the profound degradation of the freshwater ecosystems that are vital for our economy and well-being.

However, the Living Planet Report also presents real solutions and alternatives within the reach of all to ensure there will be enough water for our needs while preserving the health of the rivers, lakes and wetlands it comes from. Examples include the application of more efficient and intelligent irrigation systems, or improving the planning and governance of water with greater participation by all the agents involved so that river basins will be managed as the complex and hugely diverse living systems they are.

When we talk of “water supply networks” we traditionally refer to the set of infrastructures—dams, canals, pipelines, reservoirs, water treatment plants—that make it possible for drinking water to reach our cities and homes, nearly always forgetting that water does not come from a tap. It comes from ecosystems, and from nature.

Forests, rivers and wetlands are essential components of living networks, which are much more complex than artificial ones, and make it possible for human beings to have water available for drinking, irrigation or manufacture, and even for inspiration, enjoyment or prayer. Healthy aquatic ecosystems are the sole guarantee for possessing water resources of sufficient quality and quantity for current uses and those of future generations.

While water supply networks formed by concrete infrastructures are faced with the challenge of modernization in order to reduce losses and profit better from the resource, the water supply networks of nature have to cope with increasing pressure from human beings, who mistreat them as badly as they need them.

Throughout their history, humans have intervened at will in the natural water cycle with the aim of better using resources. The courses of rivers have been modified and fragmented by large infrastructures in order to accumulate their water and place it at the disposal of demand whenever necessary. Nearly half the volume of water of the world’s rivers has been altered by regulation work. When this is not enough, we transfer water from one hydrographic basin to another, perpetuating unsustainable models, instead of adapting development to endogenous capacities. And we pump water from deeper and deeper aquifers, exhausting fossil resources to satisfy unsustainable demands. Some rivers no longer reach the sea because their water resources are completely exhausted along their course. In other cases, the waters are so polluted that few species can survive.

Agriculture already occupies a third of the surface area of land on the planet, and is responsible for 69 percent of fresh water extractions. Together with the rest of the food system, it generates nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions

According to the World Economic Forum, the water crisis is one of the greatest risks facing humanity on a global scale. The growing scarcity of water in more and more areas of the planet is not a problem of the quantity of water but a reflection of the imbalance between demand and available resources. While there were thirty countries in 1992 that suffered from water shortage or stress, the figure had climbed to fifty by 2014. Guaranteeing affordable water for all, free of pollution and sustainably managed, is in fact one of the key points on the global agenda and the new Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations.

Moreover, as our Living Planet Report shows, we have propitiated and spread a model of production of energy, food and other goods that demands more and more investment in infrastructures. Products irrigated with local water are consumed in a global market, but the impact on hydro resources and the energy footprint is seldom internalized in the real cost of these resources, nor does it find reflection in the final price of the products.

The “cheap” consumer goods enjoyed by the most developed countries are in fact very expensive, since the non-inclusion of negative production externalities stimulates the continual construction of new infrastructures to supply water or produce energy, and so backfeeds a perverse system. A mirage of free and infinite water is created, allowing and fostering an unsustainable growth of its consumption around the world, and causing shortages that eventually affect the population in producing countries.

The planet does not have as much water as can be stored or transferred by artificial infrastructures, but as much as nature can give us. We have to agree on limits for extracting it which will allow the hydrological cycle to be maintained in healthy and functional conditions, with water of sufficient quantity and quality in drainage basins and aquifers. Such agreement on limitations is vital because it is the water maintained in nature that will allow the ecosystem to keep functioning, and so permit the resource to be managed suitably.

We humans demand water from nature without stopping to think how essential it is for the quality and degree of the conservation of the biodiversity and ecosystems that produce, purify and transport it. But we have caused such severe impacts on aquatic ecosystems that it is increasingly difficult to obtain enough water to satisfy our basic needs.

Investment in the ecological restoration of natural water networks and green infrastructures should be a priority for all water-related public and private sectors, since when they function correctly, they provide high-quality water, prevent serious natural catastrophes like floods, and reduce damage and maintenance costs for artificial infrastructures and networks.

It is unfortunately not always possible to restore nature to its original state, but many of the wounds caused by human activity can be healed. Thus, degraded and even destroyed river ecosystems can be revived. However, most investment is still aimed at the construction of artificial networks, and only a marginal effort is currently being made to preserve and recover natural infrastructures.

We are already experiencing the first impacts of climate change, one of whose most serious manifestations will be the modification of the water cycle in many parts of the planet, with variations in precipitation patterns, evaporation and water temperature that will have grave consequences for ecosystems, biodiversity and the subsistence of hundreds of millions of people whose lives, in one way or another, are closely linked to water.

In the face of this threat, the solution currently proposed is to pour the scant available resources into the construction of new infrastructure. If all the dams currently planned or under construction for hydroelectric power or irrigation were finished, we would lose 93 percent of the natural volume of water of the world’s rivers.

From our point of view, the chief investment should be dedicated precisely to a massive deployment of renewable energies, a reduction in water consumption through innovation in more sustainable forms of production, and the restoration of degraded ecosystems in order to increase their resilience to climate change and allow them to continue to provide their services as naturally as possible. Investment in infrastructures and artificial networks should be left for those cases where they are accredited as necessary to ensure supply or treat waste.

Finally, it is vital to change the current perspective of most public administrations and of the private sector, which apparently still believe that the water in our rivers should be used up to the last drop, on the grounds that it ought not be allowed to be “wasted in the sea,” instead of accepting the necessity of leaving enough water for natural processes and biodiversity to complete their cycle. At the same time, it is essential to make progress in the effective conservation of drainage basins, making firm efforts to create new protected areas where the collection and purification of water will be guaranteed throughout the system, and also to provide other services contributed by the ecosystems. Management therefore needs to evolve toward an understanding that ecosystems and natural water supply networks are not competing with it for the resource, but are its closest ally when it comes to capturing, storing, channeling and purifying water, and that there are other vital objectives to be fulfilled, such as the transport of sediments and the connectivity and mobility of the species that give the river its life.

When one lives in a city like mine, Quito, where the supply of something as vital as water is closely dependent on the health of an ecosystem as fragile as the plateaus that capture water from the atmosphere and act as hydraulic regulators that stabilize the water volume of rivers, it is easy to appreciate the importance of viewing natural water supply networks from an integral perspective, preserving them so that they can fulfill their function as “water factories,” and tackling the wide range of threats they face, climate change included.

Fortunately, there is for the first time a consensus among governments, the private sector and society as a whole on the need for change, and this is permitting progress that was unthinkable only a short time ago. Examples include the Paris Agreement on climate change; the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time bring together the economic, social and environmental agendas; and the New Urban Agenda, the result of the Habitat III summit held in Quito. They will prove enormously important for improving the management of water across the planet.

An evolution away from our current unsustainable use of water is the responsibility of all, and our success will depend on whether we are able to change quickly and in unison towards a model of development respectful of the nature and ecosystems which maintain our society and economy. Only by giving top priority to the care and restoration of the ecosystems that form natural water supply networks will our children and grandchildren be as fortunate as we are in continuing to enjoy the so-called “blue gold” of the twenty-first century.

BIOGRAPHY

YOLANDA KAKABADSE

This Ecuadorean conservationist of Georgian extraction first became interested in environmental matters after finishing her studies in educational psychology at the University of Quito. In that city, she was one of the promoters of the Fundación Natura, an organization in which she acted as executive director from 1979 to 1990. At the Rio Earth Summit, she provided liaison with nongovernmental organizations. She was the driving force behind the creation in 1993 of the Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano, chairing the organization until 2006. Afterwards she also had spells as the president of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Kakabadse is moreover a board member of the Ford Foundation and the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, as well as a member of the International Earth Charter Commission.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

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