by Duncan Gromko*
Spending a long weekend in Michigan kayaking, swimming, and fishing made me realize how lucky I am to enjoy the benefits of clean and abundant water. Since this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity has the theme of Water and Biodiversity, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to write about the connection between healthy ecosystems and water supply.
Here’s why the UN chose to emphasize the link between water and biodiversity:
“Biodiversity is critical to the maintenance of both the quality and quantity of water supplies and plays a vital but often under-acknowledged role in the water cycle. This changes the water-biodiversity paradigm by requiring us to look at how biodiversity influences water. The equation becomes less about trade-offs and more about converging interests between biodiversity and water. We shift from potential conflict to partnerships and cooperation.”
Water needs are sometimes pitted against environmental concerns in the development conversation. For instance, a new hydropower dam that will supply electricity might also negatively impact habitat that supports local flora and fauna.
While those types of tensions still exist, the UN report is focusing on the interdependency between biodiversity, water, and human development. Economic productivity is dependent on functioning ecosystems. The dam in my example above will also rely on consistent supply of water, which can be improved by investing in ecosystem restoration upstream of the dam. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment described these benefits as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services, such as clean and abundant water, are affected by changes to the local environment.
Latin America and the Caribbean are well endowed with freshwater resources: 30% of the earth’s freshwater resources are found in LAC. These resources have also shaped the region’s economy, contributing to its agricultural productivity and power sources. Roughly 65% of electricity generated in LAC comes from hydropower, more than any other world region. Of course, the Amazon plays a critical role in hydrological cycling for the continent, but lesser-known ecosystems like the Pantanal provide numerous water services: replenishment of water sources, water storage, wastewater purification, control of sedimentation and siltation, and disaster risk reduction.
What I like most about the UN report is its focus on how “natural infrastructure” can be a cost effective way of protecting and enhancing water services. One famous example of the cost-effectiveness of natural infrastructure comes from the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. New York City water management officials were considering a US $6-8 billion investment in a new water treatment plant. Instead, they found that by paying landowners in the Catskills US $1-1.5 billion to improve land-use practices, they could achieve the same water purification goals. And while natural infrastructure can be cost-competitive with grey infrastructure for water provision, it also supplies a number of co-benefits. Natural ecosystems can provide revenue from tourism, sustainable harvest of renewable resources, cultural benefits, and of course biodiversity conservation. The Latin American Conservation Council (LACC), which includes IDB President Luis Moreno on its board, has made nature-based solutions to water security one of its primary objectives.
As LAC grows and becomes more urbanized, continued supply of clean water will be crucial to its development. By incorporating the value of ecosystems into decisions, policy-makers can ensure that the region secures its water supply.
* Duncan Gromko (@DGromko) is a Biodiversity Analyst for the IDB’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program, focusing on private sector engagement, spatial tools, and monitoring and evaluation of the Program. Before coming to the IDB, he worked at the World Resources Institute on the impacts of palm oil on Indonesian forests.