Watershed management

Key messages

  • Forested watersheds and wetlands supply 75 percent of the world’s accessible fresh water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological needs
  • About 90% of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forested watersheds. The populations of major cities such as Mumbai, Bogotá and New York rely on forests for their water supplies. This number will increase as urban centres grow in size and population.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the world’s population – 8 out of 10 people - is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. By 2050, an extra 2.3 billion people are projected to be living in river basins under severe water stress, especially in North and South Africa, and South and Central Asia.
  • Forests act as natural water filters. Forests minimize soil erosion on site, reduce sediment in water bodies (wetlands, ponds, lakes, streams, rivers) and trap or filter water pollutants in the forest litter.
  • Climate change is altering forests’ role in regulating water flows and influencing the availability of water resources. Forests are at the forefront of reducing the effects of climate change. In respect of water, one benefit is forests’ cooling effect on the environment produced through evapotranspiration and the provision of shade. The impacts of climate change may also be manifested in an increase in catastrophes such as floods, droughts and landslides – all of which may be influenced by forest cover. Moreover, large-scale deforestation can have an impact on precipitation patterns. 
  • Improved water resource management can show considerable economic gains. By 2030, the world is projected to face a 40 percent global water deficit under the business-as-usual climate scenario. However, every US$1 invested in watershed protection can save anywhere from US$7.5 to almost US$200 in costs of a new water treatment and filtration facility. In developing countries, a US$15 to US$30 billion investment in improved water resources management could have direct annual income returns in the range of US$60 billion.
  • Forests have a crucial role in building and strengthening resilience. When sustainably managed, forests contribute significantly to reducing soil erosion and the risk of landslides and avalanches, natural disasters which can disrupt the source and supply of freshwater. Forests protect and rehabilitate areas prone to soil degradation and erosion in upland areas.


Protecting our forests protects our clean water Forests are vital to our water supply. They influence how and where rain falls, and they filter and clean our water. By protecting the world’s forests, we are also protecting the clean water that we depend upon for our survival. [more]
FAO and the Mau Forest Kenya's Mau Forest stretches over the hills between the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. Rain falls every day here for at least six months of the year, and water trapped by the Mau feeds 12 important rivers and five major lakes. [more]
Mountains and Climate Change: A Global Concern In a changing climate, mountain regions are among the most vulnerable. They provide the world with resources such as water, timber, biodiversity and hydraulic energy and they are at risk. [more]


 All watershed management videos


Forests: nature-based solutions for water Forested watersheds provide an estimated 75 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater resources, on which more than half the Earth’s people depend for domestic, agricultural, industrial and environmental purposes. Forests therefore, are vital natural infrastructure, and their management can provide “nature-based solutions” for a range of water-related societal challenges. [more]
Advancing the forest and water nexus — a capacity development facilitation guide FAO’s Forest and Water Programme has developed a module-based capacity development facilitation guide for project and community stakeholders involved in forest, water and natural resource management to ensure we apply our knowledge to better manage forests and trees for their multiple benefits, including water quantity, quality and the associated socio-economic benefits that people within and outside forests so heavily depend on. [more]
Resilient watershed management programme The flyer showcases current work and achievements as well as future endeavours of the Resilient Watershed Management Programme. [more]
Forest and Water The publication of the flyer intends to disseminate the work of the Forest and Water Programme. It is cover the importance of integrated forest and water management and demonstrate the role of the Forest and Water Programme in this context, providing an overview on the vision, mission, goals and activities of the programme. [more]
Watershed management in action This study reviewed the achievements, and also the shortcomings, of 12 watershed management projects technically supported by FAO over the past decade, with a view to learning from experience. Watershed management is best carried out as a stepwise multistakeholder process. The review identified the following areas for moving forward: institutional strengthening for improved watershed governance; watershed monitoring; capitalizing on increased data availability; knowledge sharing and learning; and strategic partnerships for joint action on the ground. [more]
Forests and Water - International Momentum and Action Forests play a crucial role in the hydrological cycle. Forests influence the amount of water available and regulate surface and groundwater flows while maintaining high water quality. Forests and trees contribute to the reduction of water-related risks such as landslides, local floods and droughts and help prevent desertification and salinization. Forested watersheds supply a high proportion of the world’s accessible fresh water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological needs in both upstream and downstream areas. [more]
FAO Forestry Paper on Forests and Water This thematic study on forests and water was developed in the context of the Global Forest Resources Assessment programme.The availability and quality of clean water in many regions of the world is increasingly threatened by overuse, misuse and pollution. In this context, the relationship between forests and water is a critical issue that must be accorded high priority. Forested catchments supply a high proportion of the water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological needs in both upstream and downstream areas. [more]
Unasylva Issue on Forests and Water Foresters and water management specialists are cooperating more closely than ever before, but their exchange of expertise could be developed further. Informed decisions about integrated forest and water management depend on applied research and its dissemination to policy-makers. With this issue of Unasylva we hope to enhance the flow of information, knowledge – and safe water. [more]
Forests and Water - a five-year action plan Unasylva 251: Forests: nature-based solutions for water The Action Plan presents the tangible integration of science, policy and practice of forest-water interactions, and seeks to encourage greater commitment to sustainable forest and water management. The Forests and Water: a Five-year Action Plan calls for the tangible integration of science, policy and practice related to forest-water interactions. It emerged from the discussions and recommendations of the Forests and Water Agenda, which would like to encourage greater engagement of stakeholders from around the world in the topic of forests and water. [more]


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Expert interviews

Water and forests must be managed sustainably to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 24 July 2018 Maria Patek, Director General, Forestry and Sustainability, Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, Austria, explains that forests and water are closely linked and that both must be managed sustainably in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). [more]
Understanding the forest-water nexus necessary to better understand climate and environmental issues 11 July 2018 Meine van Noordwijk, the Co-Chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel (GFEP) of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), explains that in order to integrate the forest-water nexus into policy and practice, it is important to understand that water exists not only on the ground but also in the atmosphere where it shapes climatic conditions and related matters. [more]

Press releases

Forests are a natural solution to clean water for all, says FAO FAO has launched a new guide based on the idea that forests are a natural solution to clean water for all.Forested watersheds provide 75 percent of freshwater for human consumption, and 90 percent of the world’s cities rely on them for their water supply. However, only 25 percent of forests around the world are managed with water conservation in mind. [more]
Paying for priceless value: securing forests’ role in water quality Given the many threats to the Earth’s water supply, the role of forests has never been more important.The role of forest ecosystems in preserving water quality is largely underestimated. To ensure healthy water, strategies for optimizing purification, regulating surface flows and controlling erosion will increasingly need to be a part of forest management and planning. [more]

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last updated:  Tuesday, January 7, 2020