May 2023

Nature-Based Solutions: Triple Wins for Water, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods

A giant in conservation directs focus on water resource management with clear water supply benefits. The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Watersheds Strategy and Water Funds follow New York City’s renowned water supply approach.

Those unfamiliar with how water is delivered to human populations are sometimes surprised to learn that America’s biggest city – New York – receives water that only requires filtration on a small fraction (10%) of its water supplies for 9 million consumers. Because of the coordinated efforts of government agencies, environmental advocacy organizations, and charitable donors, the watersheds that feed New York City’s reservoir systems have long been protected from the development pressures that would put water supplies at risk. More recently, beginning in 1997, the city’s Watershed Protection Program (initially known as the “Filtration Avoidance” Program) combined the purchase of tens of thousands of hectares of land with other measures (including those related to agriculture, stream management, land protection, wastewater, stormwater, and ecosystem protection) to minimize the likelihood of incurring big new drinking water treatment costs.

A 2020 evaluation of the program by the National Academy of Sciences praised it as having “admirably supported watershed water quality sufficient for compliance with the [federal] Surface Water Treatment Rule, with strong indications that it will remain effective into the future,” while a wide range of stakeholders in the protected watershed areas has benefited financially (e.g., via ecotourism, reimbursements for physical measures to reduce water quality risks from livestock, and payments for forest protection). 

In the spirit of the New York experience, one of the world’s most influential conservation organizations, the Nature Conservancy, has been developing and promoting collaborations resembling the Watershed Protection and Partnership Council within New York’s Watershed Protection Program. It began in 2000, in response to a proposal by an Ecuadorian environmental NGO, when the Nature Conservancy (together with USAID) established a trust fund known as Fondo Para La Protección del Agua (FONAG), with participation from agricultural interests and water service and electricity providers downstream of the watersheds on which the city of Quito relies for its water supply, in the years since the Nature Conservancy has put in place over 40 watershed investment funds all over the world. 

In Episode 3 of the REAL Water podcast, Brooke Atwell, the Associate Director of the Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Watersheds Strategy, takes us on a tour of their Water Funds which are designed to capture the benefits of nature’s water supply services through watershed protection. Two examples from Africa stand out from our conversation: first, the Greater Cape Town Water Fund in South Africa, which faced down “Day Zero” (when taps would run dry), supported a plan to remove high water-demanding alien plants. For one-tenth the unit costs of the other response options, this forest management intervention – clearing pine and eucalyptus in favor of the native fynbos vegetation – is forecast to restore 55 million cubic meters of freshwater yield for Greater Cape Town annually – an increase of 20% over current yields. With technical support from USAID WASH-FIN, over $8 million was mobilized to support this program. (Check out David Pogue’s Unsung Science podcast episode for a deep dive into the project.)

Second: the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund in Kenya, which engages with 50,000 smallholder farmers in an agro-forestry conversion, achieving a net gain of nearly 15 million cubic meters per year in freshwater yield, accompanied by major economic and livelihood benefits and sequestered carbon. With no newly built infrastructure. 

Watershed protection is clearly an essential piece in the puzzle of securing sustainable water supplies globally, and the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to replicate and build upon the proven successes in New York and elsewhere are among the most promising we’ve seen in the area of coupling water resource management with water services delivery.   


DISCLAIMER: This report is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of The Aquaya Institute and REAL-Water consortium members and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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