Protecting Forests Can Help Ensure Clean City Water

By J.R. Pegg

September 2, 2003 (ENS) - Many of the world's largest cities could save billions of dollars on efforts to improve drinking water supplies by protecting forest areas, according to a report released Monday. The report finds that more than a third of the world's 105 largest cities - including New York, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi and Melbourne - rely on fully or partly protected forests for drinking water, but warns that the growth of many cities is making forest conservation more and more difficult.

"For many cities, time is running out," said David Cassells, a senior environmental specialist at The World Bank, which produced the report along with the WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use. "Protecting forests around water catchment areas is no longer a luxury but a necessity. When the forests are gone, the costs of providing clean and safe drinking water to urban areas will increase dramatically."

The report, "Running Pure," notes that well managed forests filter pollutants, such as pesticides, and can facilitate the capturing and storage of water. They also minimize the risk of landslides, erosion and sedimentation.

And protecting forests is far cheaper than other alternatives, such as building water treatment facilities.

The report cites the example of New York, which it says provides a model for how to use protected forests to maintain a high quality water supply.


Many consider investments in clean water and sanitation key to improving the lives of the world's poorest individuals. (Photo courtesy World Health Organization)

Some nine million residents in and around New York get their drinking water from three upstate watersheds.

Faced with stricter federal regulations put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state had to decide how to protect these surface water supplies.

One plan developed by the state centered on the construction of a new water purification plant - at an estimated cost of $6 billion to $8 billion, with an estimated annual operating cost of some $300 million to $500 million.

A rival plan rested on spending some $1.5 billion over 10 years on conservation efforts to buy and protect forested land along with incentives to farmers and other landowners who adopt good management practices within the watersheds.

It is not surprising the state scrapped the plan to build the water purification plant and opted for the less expensive solution, and the report's authors believe this is a lesson others should learn from.

"With rapid urbanization increasing pressure on forested areas, city residents need to remember that these forests provide low cost, but highly effective protection of watersheds and water quality," said Bob Irvin, director of United States ecoregional conservation at WWF.

Although New York appears as a success story, there is little doubt that major urban areas in developing nations face greater challenges.

Access to clean drinking water is a serious global problem and more than a billion of the world's city dwellers lack such access and many major cities.

The United Nations estimates that 700 million people in urban Asia do not have access to safe drinking water along with 150 million people in urban Africa and 120 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. shenandoah

Healthy forest ecosystems can produce large amounts of safe drinking water. (Photo courtesy National Parks Conservation Association)
Some two million children die each year from waterborne diseases and many international organizations cite improve water supplies as the key to improving the lives of the world's poorest individuals. But this goal is a moving target - over the next three decades the world's population is expected to grow by some 2.2 billion people and the majority of this growth will take place in urban cities within developing countries.

For most urban areas, there is not a lack of water, according to the 112 page study, but systemic problems with distribution and inadequate treatment.

The report's central recommendation does little to help with distribution, but it can make a big difference with regards to inadequate treatment, says Dr. Chris Elliott, director of WWF's Forests for Life Program.

"Some cities that are currently struggling with unsafe water supplies should protect, manage, and where necessary restore forests in strategic places," said Elliott. "This would both help them secure their supply of clean water and save billions of dollars."

Encouraging better forest conservation as part of a strategy to provide clean drinking water will require increased education, the report details. The authors write that they were "surprised how hard it was to find information for this report."

"Many people have no idea where their tap water comes from," according to the report. "Yet where there has been a debate and an information campaign - as in New York City - support for [water] catchment is high."

Enforcement of protected status must be strengthened in many areas, the report recommends, as several forest protected areas around big cities are still suffering from illegal land use and logging. urban

Almost all of the world's population growth predicted for the next three decades will occur in urban areas. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
Mount Kenya, for example, saves Kenya's economy more than $20 million a year through protecting the water catchment area of two of the country's main river systems but illegal charcoal burning, logging, and road construction are still rife in the area - severely impacting the quality of water going to the capital, Nairobi.

The report also details how the forests surrounding Istanbul, Turkey, are threatened by illegal housing developments, inappropriate land use policies, and disputes at national and local authority level.

Conservation efforts to ensure good, quality drinking water for city dwellers must not come at the expense of indigenous people, cautions Elliott.

"Any protection or management scheme should be fully negotiated with local stakeholders," he said.

The WWF says governments and donor agencies need to significantly increase their efforts in protecting water catchment areas if they are to reduce poverty and halve the number of people without adequate access to water by 2015 - a target set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development last year.