Item 6 of the Provisional Agenda


Rome, Italy, 10-14 March 2003


Secretariat Note

Table of Content


1. The loss of forest cover and conversion to other land uses can adversely affect freshwater supplies, threatening livelihoods and human health. Increasingly, it is recognized that watershed conditions and water management can be improved if forests are managed with hydrological objectives in mind. While not a panacea for resolving water issues, they provide tangible social, economic and environmental benefits which a watershed framework helps identify in both upstream and downstream areas.

2. During the last few decades, many countries came to see that watershed degradation was a serious threat to the environment and to the well-being of millions of people. In developing solutions through new integrated approaches, community needs became an important component of programme development. Thus, watershed management was transformed into a multi-disciplinary exercise, requiring institutional and organizational coordination to take into account the economic, social, political and cultural dimensions.

3. Although some progress has been achieved, recent experiences in watershed management reveal that: urgent action is needed to improve the sharing and dissemination of information on approaches and methodologies; uncertainty exists over which participatory processes are the most appropriate; technologies are not always producing the expected results; capacity building is one of the most neglected aspects of watershed management projects; and inadequate national policies, strategies and action plans significantly constrain the implementation of sustainable watershed management.

4. This paper explores options to mutually support the management of forests and water and seeks the views of member countries on the contributions that FAO and other organizations could make in addressing related issues.


5. Warnings of freshwater scarcity issued at the end of the twentieth century are proving to be accurate to the point that lack of water now threatens food security, livelihoods and human health (see UN, 1992; IFPRI, 2001). In addition, more than 3 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the problem is particularly acute in developing countries (Johnson, Revenga and Echeverria, 2001). Of the more than 3 million deaths that are attributed to polluted water and poor sanitation annually, more than 2 million are children in developing countries (van Damme, 2001). Furthermore, extensive loss of life and economic productivity result each year from rain-induced landslides, floods and torrents in developed and developing countries alike. Water and its management are therefore strategically important to economies and to the well-being of people, and water management has become one of the major challenges of this century.

6. Although land use and freshwater are inextricably linked, they are rarely managed in concert. Upstream uses of land and water can affect downstream communities and their use of water. The converse is also true. Such linkages are readily seen with a watershed perspective, but are not always fully taken into account when responses are being developed at the local, national and international levels.

7. The International Year of Mountains – 2002 focused worldwide attention on land and water use in mountainous watersheds. As the headwaters for all major rivers of the world, many of which are or were at one time forested, they are a key to freshwater management. The relationship between forests and freshwater in both tropical and temperate regions therefore needs to be understood if forests are to be better managed to sustain the productivity of uplands without affecting humans and the soil and water on which they depend. Enhancing the chances of achieving such objectives means taking a watershed management perspective in the planning, monitoring and implementation of forest, water resource, agricultural and urban development programmes.


8. The loss of forest cover and conversion to other land uses can adversely affect freshwater supplies and compound human disasters resulting from hydro-meteorological extremes. Watershed conditions and water management can be improved if forests are managed with hydrological objectives in mind. While not a panacea for resolving water issues, forests provide tangible social, economic and environmental benefits. A watershed framework helps identify these benefits in both upstream and downstream areas.

9. Although efforts are still needed to better understand the effects of forest management on climate and water flows, it is generally accepted that forested watersheds are exceptionally stable hydrological systems. In contrast to other land uses, healthy forests:


10. During the last few decades, watershed degradation was seen as a serious threat not only to the environment but to the well-being and survival of millions of people living in watershed and downstream areas. Recognising the importance of the conditions of upper catchments, reversing watershed degradation became a priority for many countries. However, many watershed management programmes failed to achieve their objectives mainly due to:

11. Consequently, new concepts and approaches were developed to reverse watershed degradation and to improve agriculture and rural development. In this regard, particular attention was given to the social and economic aspects of watershed management in formulating and implementing programmes and projects.

12. Recognizing that the management and conservation of land resources would not be sustainable nor could they be replicated unless people’s concerns were taken into account, the integrated concept was further refined to consider community needs as an important component of programme development.

13. The participatory approach introduced over the last decade includes, in addition to the technical aspects, the economic, social, political and cultural dimensions of natural resources conservation and management. Watershed management has become multi-disciplinary, requiring institutional and organizational coordination of watershed management activities.

14. The development of concepts and approaches and watershed management experiences carried out in many places of the world now call for further investigation, analysis and consultation among stakeholders to arrive at greater consensus on what has been achieved and how things could be done better. Stakeholders are stressing the need to have a clearer understanding of several of the key issues.


15. As a consequence of the attention to and investments in watershed management, much progress has been achieved. However, several issues still require in-depth analysis and consultation among parties. An overview of experiences over the last decade reveals that:


Review and assessment of watershed management approaches and strategies

16. Although there is general agreement on the importance of integrated watershed management to conserve natural resources and to improve conditions of people living in upland areas, approaches to watershed management continue to be controversial.

17. In response to concerns, in early 2002, FAO launched a review and assessment of activities related to watershed management. “Preparing the Next Generation of Watershed Management Programmes” aims to provide an opportunity for parties to share information and contribute to a better understanding of the state of watershed management. It also seeks to encourage and support the implementation of effective watershed management at local, national and regional levels. The initiative comprises the following five tasks:

New entity “Forests and Water”

18. A new entity that links forests and water is proposed in the FAO Medium Term Plan 2004-2009, reflecting the importance FAO accords to the conservation of water resources. The proposal focuses on improving national awareness and the policy environment in support of the sustainable management of mountain forests and upland areas with regard to water resources. In addition to increasing understanding of the role and application of forest hydrology and the identification of elements which constitute effective watershed management, the entity aims at developing, demonstrating and promoting appropriate technologies and practical methodologies. This work would be undertaken with stakeholders as a follow up to the recommendations of the International Year of Mountains and the International Year of Freshwater.


19. The following are some potential ways in which the management of forests and water can be mutually supportive.

20. First, mountainous forested watersheds require special attention as the most important freshwater-yielding areas in the world, but also as the source areas for landslides, torrents and floods. People inhabiting the headwater regions and those living in the downstream lowlands depend on freshwater from the uplands, and also feel the effects of hydro-meteorological extremes. Action to prevent or mitigate disasters in mountainous terrain should include:

21. Second, forests can be managed to enhance freshwater supplies, but as a component of comprehensive and multifaceted water management programmes. The economic value of water and its source areas must be recognized. By reducing water subsidies and treating water as a commodity rather than a free good, economic incentives can support better management in the following ways.

22. Third, the potential exists to mitigate the economic damage caused by floods and sediment delivery through forest management in uplands, riparian areas and floodplains. Although the largest and most damaging floods in major rivers are not affected by the extent of forest cover, moderate and localized floods can increase when forests are removed. Forest degradation brings with it many undesirable effects on water flow and quality. Healthy upland and riparian forests can maintain low levels of sediment delivery to rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

23. Fourth, a watershed perspective should be incorporated into the planning and management of forests, water, and urban and agricultural land use. This perspective is needed at the local level as well as the highest government levels in order to promote sustainable solutions.

24. Fifth, incentives and the means to achieve freshwater objectives must be provided through forest and other land-use management policies and institutions, from the local watershed level to the river basin level. Intersectoral dialogue and cooperation are necessary to achieve management objectives and to resolve inequities in terms of who pays and who benefits from changes in upstream and downstream resource use. Expanded economic analysis is needed to understand these inequities better and to resolve them. The emerging water economy will facilitate the justification of land-use changes to enhance water supplies. Consideration should be given to compensating inhabitants who improve forests and other land uses that reduce downstream losses. The policy environment and institutional support may be enhanced through:

25. Socio-economic aspects as well as technical components need to be stressed so that the resulting information can provide the foundation for developing new technology and policies to enhance people’s welfare through improved forest and freshwater management.


26. The management of forests in relation to water is a critical issue that must be afforded high priority. Therefore, member countries may wish to provide advice to FAO on potential future direction and activities, including:


Johnson, N., Revenga, C., & Echeverria, J. 2001. Managing water for people and nature. Science, 292: 1071-1072

Van Damme, H. 2001. Domestic water supply, hygiene, and sanitation. 2020 Focus, Vol. 9, Brief 3. Available on the Internet: