6 March 2003, Rome -- The loss of forest cover and conversion to other land uses can adversely affect freshwater supplies, threatening the survival of millions of people and damaging the environment, according to FAO.

At a time when the lack of water in many regions threatens food security, livelihoods and human health, watershed conditions can be improved if forests are managed with hydrological and socio-economic objectives. FAO's Committee on Forestry (COFO) will discuss these issues at its next session in Rome (10-14 March).

COFO is FAO's leading forum for international discussions on forest policy and technical issues. Approximately 300 participants from more than 100 countries are expected to attend the meeting.

The State of the World's Forests 2003 report, forests and freshwater, a study on the future of forests in Africa and a review of FAO programmes in the forestry sector top the agenda.

The FAO paper on forests and water stresses the need to improve national awareness and policy environment in support of the sustainable management of mountain forests and upland areas. "Mountainous forested watersheds are the most important freshwater-yielding areas in the world, but also the source areas for landslides, torrents and floods."

As a follow up to the International Year of Mountains (2002) and in accordance with the International Year of Fresh Water currently observed by the UN and the world community, the paper advocates policies and action programmes for effective watershed management and other key forest-related activities aimed at integrating forests as important components of comprehensive water management programmes.

Forests v/s floods

For example, action to optimize the economy of water resources and at the same time prevent or mitigate disasters could include:
  • maintenance of healthy forest cover on mountainous watersheds that are subject to torrential rainfall;
  • development of programmes that combine forest protection with zoning, floodplain management and engineering structures to protect people from landslides, debris flows and floods;
  • agroforestry systems for upland watersheds in order to capture the hydrological benefits of forests, while enhancing food and natural-resource protection for the rural poor;
  • incentives for the people who improve forests and other land uses that reduce downstream losses.
More than 3 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the problem is particularly acute in developing countries. 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, according to recent estimates. Furthermore, extensive loss of life and economic productivity result each year from rain-induced landslides, floods and torrents in developed and developing countries alike.

"The relationship between forests and freshwater in both tropical and temperate regions needs to be further 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," according to FAO.

Pierre Antonios
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53473