San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Protecting global water sources

A report released this week finds that more countries are turning to environmental services programs to protect sensitive water sources.

Facing increasing water scarcity, many countries are turning to environmental service payments to help mitigate the effects of climate change and pollution. 

A study released this week by research group Ecosystem Marketplace, titled “State of Water Resource Protection 2012,” noted that 80 percent of the world’s countries are facing issues related to threatened water security. 

“We are witnessing the first stages of a global response that could transform the ways in which we value and manage the world’s hydrologic resources,” said Michael Jenkins, CEO of Forest Trends, a conservation group that manages Ecosystem Marketplace. 

According to Marta Echavarría, a member of Ecosystem Marketplace’s advisory committee, Costa Rica is a pioneer of environmental service payment programs, established in the 1990s with the creation of the National Forestry Financing Fund, which provides landowners with financial incentives to protect forested areas. 

Other countries in the region, including Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia, have created similar programs, sometimes offering non-financial incentives. In Bolivia, for example, more than 500 families receive bee farms, fruit trees or other productive input in exchange for efforts to protect water sources. Ecuador pays farmers and indigenous communities to protect their hydrologic resources. 

From 2008 to 2011, initiatives to protect and restore forests, wetlands and other important ecosystems have doubled in number. The report covers 205 programs around the world, 21 of them in Latin America. Globally, the number of programs has increased by 100 in three years, totaling $8.2 billion in investment, a significantly greater amount than in 2008. 

Ecosystem Marketplace analysts noted that investing in programs to protect water at the source, rather than spending on treatment, could result in considerable savings for governments. It also helps to guarantee water security and provide environmental and social benefits to communities. 

“[These programs] definitely curb costs. If we don’t look for natural alternatives, eventually we’re going to have to invest heavily in building large water treatment plants or in transporting potable water long distances,” Echavarría told The Tico Times.

Another problem Latin Americans face is a general lack of water treatment infrastructure. Coupled with the effects of pollution and climate change, the lack of treatment facilities is converting a region rich in hydrologic resources into one that is highly vulnerable to problems with accessing potable water. 

The study notes that China is a global leader in investing in programs to protect hydrologic resources at the source. The Asian giant accounts for 91 percent of global investments in environmental services programs protecting water. Chinese officials, for example, offer new health service benefits for residents in mountainous communities in exchange for better groundwater management, which they say will help improve potable water access.

“The lack of secure water sources likely represents the greatest threat for continued economic growth [in China],” the report noted. 

In the United States, officials in New York chose not to invest heavily in new water treatment facilities, opting instead to implement compensation programs for farmers in the Catskills who agreed to work to reduce pollution in regional lakes, rivers and streams that provide New York City with potable water. Thanks to these efforts, New York had enough drinking water to make it through the recent Hurricane Sandy.

The study also notes that 68 other environmental services programs operate in all of North America. 

“The benefits of these hydrologic programs extend well beyond water; they support biodiversity, reduce emissions and provide income to rural families,” said Genevieve Bennett, the report’s lead author.

But private-sector participation in these types of programs remains limited, despite the fact that many companies have reported problems related to water availability. Most of these types of programs are operated by nongovernmental organizations or by governments. 

“It could very well be that many companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to see if these programs can be improved upon,” Bennett said. 

But Bennett believes that the market for hydrologic services investment is on the verge of considerable growth, particularly if the global economy begins to improve. 

 “The best part of this report is that it tells us that these types of investments are real, they’re growing, and they don’t follow ideological lines. Countries with a neoliberal philosophy are implementing them along with capitalist countries and communist countries like China. We all have to protect our water sources,” Echavarría said.

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