Submitted by guest blogger on Tue, 01/29/2013

By James Dalton of IUCN’s Global Water Programme.

I am an engineer. I like to see how and why things work the way they do, and like to focus on how to make things work better, including projects and programmes.

I was also taught and trained in science – but I struggle with it. I struggle with the need for science to be so exact and defining. I understand why it has to be so exact but often it does not articulate itself well. The relevance of science can be questioned because it often fails to make itself understood to the audience – or ‘stakeholders’ it is trying to inform and influence.

With this in mind I looked at the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) report, and its definition of ecosystem services as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems”. In the report ecosystem services were ‘categorised’ into supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural ‘services’ – the benefits society receives from nature in the form of security, the basic materials for a good life, health, and good social relations.

The MEA Report contains a (now famous) diagram which tries to show the link between the different categories of ecosystem services, and the benefits society receives. On the left are the ecosystem service categories, and on the right, the benefits society receives collectively as ‘human well-being’. Between the services provided and human well being there are a series of coloured arrows to demonstrate that some services society can provide in different ways through our social organisation skills, or through paying for them.

This is important to show that when an ecosystem is degraded, we have to subsidise the services through investing, or at the extremes, moving populations! For me, the easiest example is how we can extract water from a river, put it in a pipe, clean it, and send it to our homes. This is much easier than giving everyone access to the river bank to try and fend for themselves. We can pay for this ‘service’ – but we still need clean water in the river in the first place.
So I tried to find some of the basic information that allowed this figure to be drawn for the MEA report, particularly the data that allowed the arrows to be coloured and scaled – who decided how much society could pay for things such as food when ecosystem services become degraded?

It is actually quite hard to find this information. It is contained in many reports and consultation documents. I looked around – did others have the same questions? Was new published science making this easier to understand?

I found a welcome and increasing interest in ecosystem services, more journal articles than you can digest in a lifetime in fact, but all still focussed on definition and preciseness and quantitative reasoning. This is fine for science – but can I use these new tables on ‘changes in provisioning services’ to start a conversation with an adviser to the Ministry of Water, or Energy, or Agriculture, or Land Planning? In most cases no – not very easily. Not without some form of interpretation.

In the IUCN Water Programme we have become increasingly interested in the use of infographics – the (almost) art form of taking complex information and displaying it in a designed graphical way. This allows readers to absorb complex information in a simpler and quicker format than having to read a journal paper. Scientists will perhaps not be happy – it’s not exact, it’s not precise I hear them cry. But, does it always have to be?

We took these ideas about displaying information differently and redrew the MEA Report ecosystem services figure. It was fun. It took us months of ‘standing meetings’ (the two-minute ones around each other’s desks which are often highly productive). And then we said – let’s look at it from our water perspective, and let’s interpret the ‘categories’ such as provisioning using our own understanding, and equally let’s state more clearly what we understand as human well-being. We took away the arrows – they were confusing and complicated and not intuitive. Instead we drew two figures – the one shown below is a functioning healthy ecosystem. The second figure we have shows a degraded ecosystem, one where the services are less, resulting, very simply, in a reduction of well-being – in turn leading to options to fill this service gap using our amazing human ability to self-organise, or through our economic wealth.

So thank you MEA Report ecosystem services diagram – we salute you – the science contained in that figure allowed us to interpret it as we needed. We hope you enjoy it! We are using infographics in more of our work all the time.

As part of a UN-led consultation process ‘The World We Want 2015’ the IUCN Global Water Programme is taking a lead role in the consultation on water, particularly on the sub-stream ‘Water for Nature and Nature for Water', taking place this week 28 January to 1 February.

IUCN welcomes the use and sharing of the infographic, provided credit is duly acknowledged as ©IUCN Water. Please contact for further information.