Submitted by Isabelle Fauconnier on Fri, 05/01/2015

By Isabelle Fauconnier, Water Policy and Sustainability Adviser, IUCN Global Water Programme.

As I reflect on the rich sessions of the recent 7th World Water Forum, I feel buoyed by the stimulating challenges that water management offers us but also curious as to how we – the global water community of practice and beyond – will actually tackle these in the coming years. For example, there is now a consensus that water-food-energy ‘Nexus’ thinking and transboundary water cooperation are each good ideas. These are two complex propositions that share a common obstacle: they are not easy to implement. Yet in many shared basins, as we move from policy talk to action on the ground, we must often overlay and take on these two very challenges.

We at IUCN, along with others, have made the case that nature is a solution for water, and not just a competing use for water. Ecosystems, as natural infrastructure, perform vital functions like water storage by forest soils and wetlands, soil nutrient cycling for food production, water purification, and more. In turn, it is healthy ecosystems that provide a key input, water, for the production of food and energy, and for human consumption. So if ecosystem functions are depleted, energy and food production and basic human water needs will suffer considerable losses.

Shutterstock SJ Travel

Healthy river basins – healthy water supplies © Shutterstock SJ Travel

The tricky thing is that because ecosystems don’t follow political boundaries, they are often a shared resource between neighbouring countries. And in both transboundary and national river basins, they are a shared resource among user groups across food, energy and other economic sectors. So what will propel stakeholders – be they countries, basin institutions, user groups, or individuals – to better cooperate towards ecosystem protection and water management so as to better share these ecosystem benefits?

Maybe we start by getting water users and policy makers well equipped with knowledge about the worth of these services to daily human activities. Isn’t it time for stakeholders to internalise the value of these services in their decisions? Without proper valuation of these services, we fail to see the additional benefits that can be derived from their improved joint management.

Clearly, the values to be assessed are not just monetary: they might also include strategic, peace-building and cultural values. Capturing the values of ecosystem services, and factoring them into management scenarios at the basin level would be a huge step forward. It would help decision makers and users jointly plan for land use and for natural and built infrastructure to provide services such as irrigation, water supply and hydropower generation.

I was struck by the simplicity and persuasiveness of an example from Peru, shared by Fernando Momiy Hada, President of SUNASS, the Peruvian regulatory agency for water supply and sanitation utilities. Mr Momiy spoke at a session organised by IUCN Water and the Ramsar Convention Secretariat titled ‘Scaling impact and collective implementation to manage and restore ecosystems for water services and biodiversity.’ He explained the steps that SEDACUSO utility took to protect Piuray lake through a payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme involving local communities. The utility had made a simple calculation: it was much more cost-effective to pay riparian communities to undertake ecosystem restoration activities in the watershed than to invest in costly engineered infrastructure for water quality and supply. As a result, Peru is now scaling up this approach to several other watersheds in the country.

This example reminds us that the benefits and costs of ecosystems and water management are shared among stakeholders at different levels, from the national to the local. So identifying the full range of stakeholders across neighboring countries, sectors and levels is critical. Farmers and fishing communities have a key role to play: the very way in which these different actors use and manage water resources is what helps to determine values, including benefits and impacts of management scenarios, both in terms of quantity and equity. Put differently, the proper valuation of ecosystem benefits reflects not just the interests of ‘big agriculture’ and ‘big energy’, but also uses by local, smaller stakeholders…So ecosystem valuation offers the added benefit of strengthening the voice and inclusion of local stakeholders.

Obviously, this is no simple magic bullet: it is a process that requires good analysis, consultation, dialogue and negotiation at many levels. But it is probably worth it: including nature in our calculations of present and future value can lead to less costly, more sustainable and more equitable projects.

Read more about the work of IUCN Water and some of its key projects and publications including BRIDGE – Building River Dialogue and Governance Project, the NEXUS project and VALUE: Counting ecosystems as water infrastructure.