Watershed management and mountains
With its mandate to work on natural resource management, food security, and livelihoods, and its attention to the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, FAO has played a leading role in sustainable mountain development, watershed management and forest ecology for many years. In 1992, due to its long experience which dates back to the 1970ies, FAO was appointed Task Manager for Chapter 13 of Agenda 21Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development”.
Photo © Thomas Hofer/ FAO“Chapter 13 includes two main programme areas: “generating and strengthening knowledge about the ecology and sustainable development of mountain ecosystems” and “promoting integrated watershed development and alternative livelihood opportunities”. In 2002, FAO was appointed Lead Agency for the International Year of Mountains. From 2003 onwards, FAO is also mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to lead observance of the International Mountain Day, every year on 11 December. FAO participated in drafting Chapter 24 (Mountain Ecosystems) of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as well as the work program on mountain biological diversity of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
In the context of Rio+20 – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development - the leading role of FAO in sustainable mountain development and watershed management was renewed and strengthened. Largely as a result of joint efforts by FAO and Mountain Partnership Members, three paragraphs on mountains were included in the final document, The Future We Want. The paragraphs set out the global benefits of mountain ecosystems, the vital role mountain people have in ensuring sustainable development and call on international support for mountain development in developing countries. FAO was officially charged with following up on paragraph 211, in close collaboration with UNEP.
Recent environmental, economic and social developments such as climate change, increasing natural disasters, population growth, the expansion of commercial agriculture and urbanization compromise the role of mountain ecosystems and watersheds to provide essential environmental goods and services. Degradation and decreasing water flows seriously affect agricultural production and food security and threaten the supply of water to large urban centers in the lowlands. There is increasing evidence that water, energy and food will be the main scarcities in the coming decades.
Photo © Brian Richardson/ FlickrWatershed management and sustainable mountaindevelopment are necessary to address these challenges. Mountain ecosystems and watersheds are essential for long-term sustainable global development and poverty alleviation and can highly contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Forests play an essential role in regulating and filtering most freshwater flows on earth. The quantity and quality of water available for civil, agricultural, industrial and recreational use depend largely on the existence and health of forests. However, the degree to which forests can improve both the quality and quantity of water supplies is dependent on local environmental conditions.
Over time, FAO has progressively built up a conceptual and operational framework that links watershed management to sustainable mountain development and forest hydrology. In 2002-2003, FAO together with key organizations undertook a thorough review of past and current approaches to watershed management. The results of this process are summarized in the publication “The new generation of watershed management programmes and projects” and the new approach is currently being implemented and tested at the field level. One of the main characteristics of the new paradigm promoted by FAO is the emphasis on watershed natural resource management as part of local socio-economic development processes, whereas in the past there was confusion between watershed management and overall rural development. Important aspects of the new approach are the focus on multi-stakeholder participation, the recognized importance of upstream-downstream linkages, and long-term planning and financing. FAO is experiencing an increase in the number of requests for technical assistance and policy advice related to watershed management, sustainable mountain development and forest hydrology. FAO’s experience shows that it is absolutely crucial to link natural resource management with activities to improve the livelihood situation of the local population and work at the political level, including for example good governance, decentralization and specific policies.