The role of forests in sustaining water supplies, in protecting the soils of important watersheds and in minimising the effects of catastrophic floods and landslides has long been discussed and debated. The International Year of Mountains (2002) and the International Year of Freshwater (2003) re-emphasised that mountainous watersheds, land use and water are inextricably linked. For decades this perceived link has served as an important justification for promoting and implementing watershed management.
Every year large-scale floods in the Asian lowlands affect the personal and economic fortunes of millions of people. To many people involved in developing disaster-reduction strategies and flood-mitigation management, it appears that the intensity of floods has increased in the region in recent decades. A common - and perhaps understandable reaction - is to blame the mismanagement of Asias uplands and the clearing of forests in important mountainous watersheds for the misery brought to the lowlands. To a large extent, conventional wisdom - which is sometimes more fiction than fact - about the benefits of forests has clouded the perspectives of decisionmakers, leading to an over-emphasis on reforestation and forest protection at the expense of more holistic watershed and river-basin management.
The conventional wisdom is that forests act as giant sponges, soaking up water during heavy rainfall and releasing freshwater slowly when it is most needed, during the dry months of the year. The reality is far more complex. Although forested watersheds are exceptionally stable hydrological systems, the complexity of environmental factors should cause us to refrain from overselling the virtues of forests and from relying on simple solutions (e.g., removing people currently living in mountainous watersheds, imposing logging bans, or implementing massive reforestation programmes). Rather, the complexity of these processes should prompt us to reassess our current knowledge of the relationship between forests and water, and reconsider conventional responses to one of the most serious disaster threats in the Asia-Pacific region - i.e., large-scale floods.
This booklet aims to separate fact from fiction on issues related to forests and water and to dispel some of the commonly held misconceptions about the role of forests in flood mitigation. It does not pretend to provide an exhaustive overview on the subject; rather, it aims to brief policy-makers, development agencies and the media, and so constructively contribute to the development of sound watershed and river-basin management, and flood-mitigation policies, for the region.
Assistant Director-General and
Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific