Freshwater ecosystems and human development

Thursday 27 August | 14.00-15.30 | Room: FH 300
Photo: Fred Boltz

Freshwater ecosystems – particularly forest watersheds, wetlands and other natural ecosystems – play a central role in the global water cycle, in local generation of fresh water flows, and the healthy functioning and resilience of other ecosystems. Freshwater security depends on healthy ecosystems. Recognising this human-ecosystem interdependency is essential for achieving sustainable water stewardship. Current human threats to freshwater ecosystems include rapid infrastructure development and land use change, inefficient water use and over-abstraction, release of pollutants and introduction of invasive species. These threats, combined with increasing demand for water resources exacerbate the sustainable development challenge. Faced with the short-term prospect that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population may be living in conditions of severe water stress (UN-Water 2013), it is essential to find solutions that provide for the maintenance of freshwater ecosystems while meeting human needs.


Tools and approaches/solutions, incentives

14:00   Introduction
             Fred Boltz, the Rockefeller Foundation

14:05   Keynote: The New Economic Reality of Water
            Casey Brown, University of Massachusetts Amherst

14:20   Valuing Watersheds for Sustainable Development 
            Jan Cassin, Forest Trends

14:35   Reducing Nutrient Loads from Agriculture Using Pay-for-
            Performance Conservation
            Jonathan Winsten, Winrock International

14:50   Transitioning to a state of the art water right and allocation
             system in Nevada
             Mike Young, University of Adelaide

15:05   Poster Pitch

  • "Payment for Ecosystem Services" Initiative in the Cubango-Okavango River Basin
    Eric Hoa, UNEP - United Nations Environment Programme
  • Ecosystem based approaches for Water-use efficiency development in Gaza Strip 
    Basheer Obaid, Palestinian Water Authority

15:15   Discussion


The linkages between people and the environment are intrinsic; an old concept that has become urgent with increasing pressures from anthropogenic activity. There is a need to increase the capacity to consider these linkages in order to appropriately evaluate decision-making. The workshop therefore aimed to clearly demonstrate benefits derived from ecosystems and costs of human activity while discussing possible solutions.

Supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services provide various benefits to fulfill human wellbeing. Regulating services include the capacity of forests to act as carbon sinks and oceans to regulate temperatures; benefits that play a significant role globally. The workshop provided global perspectives and local examples including; wetlands that provide water purification to support rapid urbanization, restoration of riverine ecosystems to regulate nutrient loads and ecosystem-based adaptation.

Conventional approaches are not able to harness the potential of ecosystems to support human development nor are they sufficient to consider negative trade-offs. Examples from China and India demonstrated the unintentional and cumulative impacts of small-scale hydropower on flow and sediment management and impacts of agricultural development on a downstream reservoir. While immediate needs for human development can be met, there is a great risk that unaccounted costs occur and are transferred in time and space.

The challenge is complex and requires a range of solutions that encompasses policy, science, governance and tools. Political will at all levels is an important factor that can allow for multiple objectives to be included in policymaking. On the global agenda, the sustainable development goals (SDG) provide an opportunity to set a common framework that demonstrates the linkages between human development and ecosystems.

The choice of indicators and availability of science to appropriately measure the progress with respect to the SDGs as well as a local agenda is often debated. Throughout the workshop, the argument was made that although more science is crucial in order to reduce the risk of undervaluing ecosystems, it is of greater importance to identify impacts and benefits, providing a platform for debate and applying an approach that allows for multiple objectives. Simple frameworks and models were shown to be effective, provided transparency and inclusiveness.  

Innovative ways of adapting traditional approaches such as regulations, incentives and water permits as well as new tools were discussed including payments for ecosystem services schemes based on payment for performance instead of payment for practice. On-going activities in Nevada, United States demonstrated the possibility to move from prior appropriation to water shares within a new governance and management arrangement. The potential for governments and businesses to also include natural capital in accounting and evaluate environmental risks was also highlighted, allowing actors to move from environmental impact assessments to opportunity assessments.

Overall conclusions:

  • We cannot live on ecosystem services alone nor without;
  • We have the capacity to achieve sustainability, but it requires a diversity of natural capital;
  • The social costs of unsustainable water use due to impacts on freshwater ecosystem often exceed benefits; holistic, comprehensive and fair evaluations are needed.