Protecting the planet’s freshwater: 3 things you need to know 

Macushi boys in canoe, Yupukari village.

Macushi boys in canoe, Yupukari village in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: Freshwater experts gathered last week for Stockholm World Water Week, the annual conference that spotlights developing solutions to the most pressing global water issues. Conservation International’s freshwater lead, Robin Abell, shares her three key takeaways from the conference and what they mean for the health of the planet’s water.

  1. Nature is no longer niche

The theme of this year’s gathering was “Water, ecosystems and human development.” While it’s true that this necessarily meant there was a lot of nature-based content, I was surprised by just how mainstream nature — specifically, nature-based solutions to freshwater problems — has become.

Let me give you an example: On the first morning, I attended two sessions about green infrastructure (basically, nature’s complement to engineered “gray” infrastructure, such as pipes and taps). The takeaway from those sessions was that the growth of the green infrastructure “industry” in the last decade alone has been remarkably rapid. Cities, countries, companies — they’re all beginning to recognize the multiple benefits, from water quality to biodiversity conservation to human health to mitigating climate change, that can accrue from investing in green infrastructure and protecting or restoring natural systems.

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Protecting nature is embedded in countries’ efforts to develop sustainably. But before we can protect nature, we need to know what’s there — and where. Conservation International is taking that first step by identifying and mapping nature’s contributions to human well-being and economic activity in countries.

  1. It’s time for companies to invest in sustainability

Up until recently, most companies were focused on how they use water: Specifically, within their factory/warehouse/refinery walls, how could they use less water in their operations while reducing the amount of pollution they send downstream?

But now we’re seeing a shift to what we call corporate water stewardship, which is a much more holistic and proactive approach to water use and conservation. Companies are recognizing that their impact on a watershed is not limited to how they use water within their walls; they’re part of a larger ecosystem of users who rely on the water in more ways than most of us can imagine.

Conservation International recently released a report that makes the case for companies to invest in green infrastructure as part of their broader corporate water stewardship commitments. It lays out multiple pathways for businesses to engage and invest in green infrastructure, from developing proofs of concept that demonstrate the multiple benefits of green infrastructure, to issuing bonds for green infrastructure projects, to pushing other companies in their sectors to make their own green infrastructure commitments.

The private sector can’t — and shouldn’t — be a substitute for government. While it’s important to note how big of an impact companies could have, whether they’ll make that happen is yet to be seen.

  1. People need to talk to each other

Water crises do not exist in a vacuum: Cape Town did not (almost) run out of water because of the actions of a single group of people or company or one event, and it didn’t come up with a workable solution in isolation. It’s not rocket science, but it needs to be said: Finding solutions to the world’s complex water problems requires bringing together actors across sectors.

I was reminded of the importance of reaching across sectors during a session at the conference that Conservation International organized, this time on inland (river, lake and wetland) fisheries. Admittedly, we weren’t sure how well attended it would be — after all, Stockholm World Water Week is dedicated to water issues, not fishing issues. But we had a full house, and the overwhelming consensus was that we need to be reaching out to everyone, including groups whom we might have seen as adversaries in the past — hydropower developers, the agriculture community, the aquaculture sector — and work together to find joint solutions.

Conservation International created a tool, the Freshwater Health Index, to help make this sort of dialogue among actors possible. Essentially, decision makers from various stakeholder groups come together to measure the health of a basin, consider scenarios for what the basin could look like in the future and (hopefully) begin to build consensus around a shared vision. This is particularly important in places such as the Mekong River Basin, where resources are shared among multiple countries.

Robin Abell is Conservation International’s Freshwater Lead. 

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