Asian Cities Can Improve Water Security through Nature-Based Solutions at Low Cost with High ROI

The Nature Conservancy report reveals environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection in 4,000 cities

Hong Kong / Arlington, Va., January 13, 2017 — As demand continues to increase for clean and reliable water around the world, protecting the land surrounding our water sources is vital. The Nature Conservancy has released a new study developed in partnership with the Natural Capital Project, Forest Trends, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Latin American Water Funds Partnership, which analyzes the source watersheds of more than 4,000 large cities around the world, including more than 1800 in Asia Pacific. “Beyond the Source: The Environmental, Economic and Community Benefits of Source Water Protection,” illustrates how nature-based solutions, such as reforestation and improved agricultural practices, can be implemented at a scale to make a visible difference in sustainable development and improving the lives of billions of people.

Cities in Asia Pacific and around the world stand to gain high returns from a modest investment in water protection, which can significantly reduce pollution in water sources with measurable results. For half of the cities analyzed globally, source water protection could cost just US$2 or less per person per year.

The study finds that four out of five cities analyzed can reduce sediment and nutrient pollution by at least 10 percent through forest protection, pastureland reforestation and using cover crops as an agricultural practice to improve water quality. Source watersheds collect, store and filter water, and when managed well, provide a number of additional benefits to people and nature.

“Protecting the land around our water sources is critical to ensuring our water supplies for the future,” said Giulio Boccaletti, global managing director of the Conservancy’s Water program. “Unfortunately, 40 percent of source watershed areas show high to moderate levels of degradation. More than 30 percent of the area encompassed by urban source watersheds in Asia is highly modified by human development.”

Globally, the report estimates that an increase of between US$42 billion to US$48 billion annually from current expenditure on watershed environmental service payment programs (US$24.6 billion) is required, in order to achieve an additional 10 percent of sediment and nutrient reductions in 90 percent of source watersheds. With this level of funding, water security could be improved for at least 1.4 billion people by focusing on the most cost-effective watersheds for water security purposes. The cost of source water protection could be covered by revealing benefits to diverse payers through the business case for water funds.

Water funds, which enable downstream water users to fund upstream land conservation and restoration, are highlighted as a successful mechanism for securing improved water quality and in some cases more reliable flows. The report highlights that one in six cities—roughly 690 cities serving more than 433 million people globally—has the potential to fully offset conservation costs through water treatment savings alone. Other cities can derive additional value from co-benefits and “stack” the total value to realize a positive return on investment.

The key nature-based solutions outlined by the Conservancy’s analysis and case studies include Targeted Land Protection, Revegetation, Riparian (or Riverbank) Restoration, Agricultural and Ranching Best Management Practices, Fire Risk Management, Wetland Restoration and Creation, and Road Management. These solutions also generate co-benefits, such as capturing and storing carbon, as well as reducing the impacts of climate change (including droughts, floods, fires and erosion) that disproportionately affect the poorest communities. Such methods preserve plant and animal biodiversity and build more resilient and healthy communities by protecting fisheries and improving farmland.

“By placing a value on these co-benefits, we can mobilize innovative and cost-effective pathways needed for funding habitat protection and land management activities,” said Andrea Erickson-Quiroz, managing director of water security at The Nature Conservancy.

Global examples of source water protection activity:


Water security improvements Zhejiang Province, China – The Longwu Water Fund in China, piloted in November 2015 by TNC, helps farmers transition to organic methods of bamboo farming, which reduces fertilizer runoff into water sources.
Climate change mitigation São Paulo, Brazil – Reforestation of barren hillsides helps reduce sedimentation of water sources and provides carbon sequestration benefits.
Climate change adaptation Rio Grande, New Mexico, U.S.A. – Forest fuel reduction reduces the intensity of potential wildfires and subsequent sediment runoff into water sources.
Human health and well-being Pucará, Bolivia – Improved agricultural practices reduce water pollution and water-borne disease in nearby communities.
Biodiversity conservation Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Reforestation improves water quality and provides habitat for diverse plant and animal life.

In addition to overcoming financial barriers, forward-looking cities, utilities firms, land stewards, lawmakers, corporations and philanthropists are needed to take steps to secure a more sustainable water future and support the development of healthier, more resilient communities.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The full report, along with videos, infographics and photos, can be downloaded at www.nature.org/beyondthesource and an interactive site featuring maps and data from the report can be found at www.protectingwater.org.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at unprecedented scale, and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 65 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.