Eco-Services: The Holistic Valuation of Water

Heidi Travis is in the Master of Environmental Studies program at Penn. She also works as a facilities manager in the School of Medicine, where she works on energy efficiency and recycling. You can read her full bio and more of her writing here. This post was originally posted on StudentReporter.org.

One of the hotly debated topics among environmental wonks, public sector representatives and companies is the value of water. Water is a resource considered to be ‘free’ and a public right by many. Why is it that our most necessary life-sustaining resource carries so inadequate a monetary value in relation to other resources such as oil? Peter Gammeltoft of the European Commission pointed out that water pricing is just one part of the solution associated with increasing awareness about its worth.  It is important to point out that other issues exist within the framework of creating a stronger monetary value for water because assigning a price to consumption (only) still does not prevent pollution from other sources.

One way to value water is through overall ecosystem sustainability, which should be considered from a holistic perspective.  People often turn to technology in order to solve our problems. Technology’s main eco-equitable purpose should be to promote ‘more with less’. Investment in natural capital, according to the United Nations’ Josefina Maestu, provides more social and environmental long-term benefits.  Yes, human ingenuity allowed us to fashion many ‘cool’ tools to make our lives easier, more interesting, healthier, and longer lasting; but nature inherently possesses its own inexpensive or even ‘free’ technological solutions in the form of natural systems. These work well to filter water, clean air, prevent flooding, and provide many other benefits which have been termed ‘ecosystem services’ and referred to in land use solutions over the past 20 years.

During the World Water Forum session on “Valuing Water and Ecosystem Sustainability”, several case studies were discussed to show how real ecosystem development plans solve environmental problems. Examples from Kenya, Tanzania, and West Berlin were used to convey ideas on how to implement plans and to show the variety of ways services might be paid for. Sometimes, payments are made in the form of vouchers or fees. Payments may also be trade-based and not just monetary, according to Jean Gault with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.  Ecosystem Services require multiple partnerships and educational outreach, as well as backing from top down and participation from the bottom up.

1. Kenya (Speaker: Josefina Maestu): Forest clearing was creating a significant runoff and land degradation problem near lake Naivasha. Through a World Wildlife Fund and Care partnership, involved parties determined that to prevent issues they needed to pay upstream farmers to transform land uses in order to maintain availability of resources for downstream use. To create this ecosystem service, they implemented better practices, found incentives for farmers through creating voucher payment systems, and thus increased productivity and crop yield as well as overall vegetation.

2. Tanzania (Speaker: Dosteus Lopa, CARE): In the Uluguru mountains of Tanzania, the Ruvu River ecosystem was being damaged because of sediment issues from slash/burn agriculture, which resulted in decreased water flow due to sediment load. The area officials working with CARE decided they needed to develop a solution to conserve soil and  “modify unsustainable land use to improve watersheds for reliable supply/flow and quality of water” according to Mr. Lopa. In order to do this, they also determined that they could improve farming practice by advising farmers to grow more valuable land efficient crops. In 2006 they created six agricultural planning scenarios including a cost benefit analysis. The result of the study found that first costs to implement better agricultural planning were high and investment was needed. They found support for the project and began educating farmers and changing practices. Results of practice changes were seen through decreases in sediment load in the river. In 2009 sediment load was 416mg/liter and in 2011 load was reduced to 274.9 mg/liter.

3. West Berlin Germany Study (Speaker: Mathieu Tolian with Veolia): This project was created to find the best use of land for combined public and agricultural use. In West Berlin, a large piece of land was being used as a catchment for untreated wastewater during the period of 1896-1993 and then for treated wastewater after 1994. It was determined that the land should be studied to create a more optimal public/private use plan.  PES studied the site to create an ecological baseline then performed a “qualitative assessment of main ecosystem services.” Scenarios were created to figure out which land use provided the best payout in relation to irrigation, financial, and social value.  They found that removing irrigation decreased potential ecological services and that by continuing irrigation it guaranteed ecological service increases. Land use considered conversion for investment in same use over a 25-year life-cycle period. Studies indicated that mixed energy crop investment was the best use in combination with shared public uses. To save investment cost and reduce land taxes, new revenue could also be added through increased public recreation and pay-per-use.

Each example conveyed required multiple partnerships, studies of best practices, education of different levels stakeholders, and investment in creating land use changes. Many private companies, NGOs, and government entities continuously work together to assess the value of ecological services in order to share examples and benefits to drive more projects. All project examples shared here were implemented through both a long-term vision and action over time. The overall concept of these projects still necessitates extensive front-end work in order to convince multiple stakeholders to implement these visionary holistic land use plans. Ecological services not only improve the environment, people’s livelihoods, and communities but also build personal connection through inspiring a wide range of people to work toward the same valuable sustainability goal.

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