Of flows and forests

Sometimes it takes a coincidence of the calendar to help us see the obvious connections in nature. 21 March is International Day of Forests and 22 March is World Water Day, which prompted WWF’s leading freshie (Lifeng Li, director of our global freshwater programme) and head tree hugger (Rod Taylor, director of our global forest programme) to check in with each other.

The connection between forests and water are pretty obvious. Conferences are held annually and committees are formed to address it, and cities from Denver in the United States to Heredia in Costa Rica and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania have all taken steps to secure their drinking water by shoring up their forests. But forest and freshwater experts tend to move in different circles and speak their own dialects. They know the water cycle and forest ecology are intimately entwined, but the freshwater crowd comes at it from the perspective of flows in the waterways and the foresters start with trees.

Rod: What exactly are “e-flows.”

Lifeng: The “e” stands for environmental. When we talk about environmental flows, we are referring to the quantity, quality and timing of water in rivers, lakes, and wetlands. In their natural state, these freshwater ecosystems have pulses – variation in the amount of water flowing through them. When a system is altered, with a dam for instance, we want to see it operated in a way that most closely replicates natural e-flows.

The Amazon rain forest. Loreto region, Peru. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Rod: I get it. So what happens when human interventions knock e-flows out of whack?

Lifeng: It affects everything in and around the ecosystem. Flow is the major driver of freshwater biodiversity, creating aquatic habitats, carrying nutrients downstream, and even triggering reproduction of fish and other species. Stop the flow, and you stop flushing sediments and pollutants through the system. That’s bad for all the species that depend on it – including people.

Rod: So it’s like a poorly managed forest – the systems breakdown. Sucking too much water out of a river is like over-logging a forest. If too many trees are taken, the soil will erode, sometimes in dangerous landslides. Sunlight beaming in through huge gaps in a forest canopy dries things to the point where even rainforests burn. When species producing vital nuts and fruits are depleted, a forest may no longer support the birds and animals it needs to disperse seeds. A degraded forest is a slowly dying forest.

But the flip side – a healthy forest – helps keep the taps running. They keep soil moist so water percolates into underground aquifiers, release mist through the leaves of trees to form rain clouds, and filter and slow surface water run-off after heavy rain. Forested watersheds and wetlands supply 75 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater.

Cayambe-Coca Nature Reserve Cloud Forest 1,400 meters above Coca River. Eastern Andes Mountains Ecuador © Kevin Schafer / WWF

Lifeng: And about one-third of the world’s largest cities get a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forested protected areas. That’s why we need to manage water in the system from the ridge to the reef, or in our jargon, through integrated river basin management. This means looking beyond one use like agriculture or energy production, and defining when and how much water can be used by whom for what purpose. It’s complicated and it means working with people from many different sectors, but it’s essential if we want to manage water to meet social, economic and environmental needs.

Rod: Sounds a lot like the landscape approach. Farmers, foresters, urban planners and conservationists have realized they cannot sustain ecosystem services by each worrying about their own patch of land in isolation from what else is going on in the landscape. Stakeholders from multiple sectors are increasingly coming together beyond the scale of individual farms, forest management units and protected areas to reconcile diverse aspirations around securing food, fibre and energy production, improving social welfare and protecting nature.

Lifeng: So we are on similar paths. Whether it’s forest or water stewardship, we are talking about business sectors, governments and individuals coming together; decisions around land and water use at larger scales and recognition of the risk shared by all if forests are lost or rivers run dry.

Pukapuki man in a dug-out canoe on the April River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. WWF is developing a model for river basin management to protect important freshwater and forest resources that offer significant habitat for threatened species as well as providing subsistence livelihoods for communities.

Rod: Right – collective action is key. Forests won’t be saved if one company quits forest clearing and another steps in to take its place. One factory can be ultra-efficient, but if the one upstream is wasteful and polluting, the river is still in trouble.

And we are seeing some great innovation as a result of this collective action. Take the example of the Regional Water Fund of Southern Ecuador (FORAGUA), where 11 municipalities have levied fees on water users and pooled them to conserve and restore forests in the watershed. This has secured sustainable supplies of water for over 430,000 people, and it’s good for forest biodiversity, too. Eyes in the sky, from drones deployed by communities to delineate and defend their territories, to sophisticated satellite imagery that tracks deforestation in real time, will make it harder for rogue operators to undermine those working in collaboration with their neighbours to maintain natural capital for the common good.

Lifeng: It’s nice to celebrate International Day of Forests and World Water Day once a year. But it’s even better if communities, policymakers and businesses see the connection and manage these resources more sustainably every day.