Water is elemental: it plays a major role in sustaining human life. Worldwide, freshwater supports about 40 percent of food-crop production via irrigation, supplies 12 percent of the fish people eat and accounts for some 20 percent of electrical power generation.

Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that without more attention to the sustainable management of this finite resource, emerging water supply problems will only worsen -- with serious consequences for agriculture and food security, especially in the developing world.

FAO studies project that by 2030, one in five developing countries will be struggling with water shortages.

One area that requires more attention, says FAO: improving international understanding of the role that forests play in maintaining water supplies and developing forest management plans that take this into account.

FAO is taking this message to the World Forestry Congress in Québec City, Canada, 21-28 September. The event, held every six years, will bring together more than 3 000 foresters, scientists, members of forest-based communities and other stakeholders from over 160 countries.

"We will be challenging forest scientists to demonstrate more clearly the role of forests in influencing water balances," says R. Michael Martin, FAO Forestry Department Director of Policy and Information. "We will be asking foresters to make water management a prominent feature of their forest plans. We will be seeking to involve forest stakeholders more directly in issues related to upland and downstream water use."

Helping filter the world's water

With international attention increasingly focused on the challenges facing global water supplies, FAO has been looking hard at the links between forests and water.

In addition to all the other benefits that the world's forests provide, they have a key role to play in the management of water resources, the Organization says.

Forests help maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and provide reliable supplies of clean freshwater. But not only do they filter and clean water -- forests also help prevent soil erosion, reduce sedimentation in reservoirs and mitigate the risks of mudslides and floods, all problems that can threaten downstream water supplies. And while forests themselves consume water, they also improve infiltration rates, thereby helping recharge underground aquifers.

Loss of forest cover can adversely affect freshwater supplies, threatening the food security of millions of people and hindering their ability to earn a living for themselves and their families.

To safeguard the world's water supply, such connections need to be taken into account, notes FAO. However, despite the growing profile of integrated approaches to resource management, more needs to be done. "Although land use and freshwater are inextricably linked, they are rarely managed in concert," the Organization observes in its 2003 report State of the World's Forests.

Looking at the big picture

Given the benefits of managing different resources in an integrated manner, policy-makers and other development specialists, including FAO, stress the value of what is known as the watershed-based approach.

This strategy involves creating management plans that address the conservation and sustainable use of all resources in a given area, rather than just focusing on one -- timber, for example, or wildlife -- at a time. Additionally, the approach employs management areas that are defined by the natural environment itself, such as river basins, rather than arbitrary boundaries.

In terms of incorporating water-related issues into forest management, says FAO, the watershed strategy offers the best way forward.

"The watershed perspective is the best framework for understanding the linkages between forests and water supplies -- and for translating them into effective management programmes," explains Moujahed Achouri, an FAO Forestry Officer.

In the United States, for example, the City of New York adopted an integrated watershed plan to address water quality issues, spending about US$1.5 billion to do so and saving an estimated US$7 to 8 billion in unneeded water treatment. In Costa Rica, implementation of a forested watershed programme near San Jose cut downstream sedimentation by 69 percent, while improvements in water quality reduced treatment costs by US$2 000 a month.

A new generation of watershed management

"Much progress has been achieved in watershed management, with new approaches and methodologies being developed to promote participatory integrated watershed management," says Achouri. "But there is no clear picture of what is really working and what can be done to improve future watershed management programmes,” he adds.

In order to fill that gap and chart out a way forward, in 2002 FAO launched a new initiative, "Preparing the Next Generation of Watershed Management Programmes." As a key element of this work, the Organization is conducting an extensive review of the successes and shortcomings of watershed approaches in order to produce a set of guidelines for future programmes.

The idea, explains Achouri, is to develop a new generation of watershed management programmes that will be more effective at reducing environmental degradation, protecting water supplies and improving the lives of the rural poor.

Key elements of this next generation of plans, according to an FAO paper being presented at the World Forestry Congress, include:

- broadening the focus of management plans to ensure that water and soil receive the same attention as commercial resources like timber or minerals;

- increasing attention paid to management based on forest hydrology and the role that forests play in relation to freshwater supplies;

- going beyond treating the symptoms of watershed degradation to addressing underlying causes;

- scaling watershed management up from the local level to regional and national levels.

The Congress provides FAO with an excellent opportunity to spread this message, identify the capacity-building and training needs of different countries and build partnerships for carrying the work forward, says Achouri.

"It's a huge, diverse audience -- all forest stakeholders, from government representatives to local NGOs, will be there," he says. "We are eager to share knowledge and experiences with them, and to talk about what we can achieve together."


George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 53168