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
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
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."
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 53168