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Billions of people around the world are still living without one of the most basic of all human rights: safe water. Among those most impacted are women and children, indigenous peoples, refugees and people with disabilities.
This particularly affects the more than 150 million people who get their drinking water directly from environmental sources such as lakes and rivers, without infrastructure such as taps, wells or pumps, says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, international development and water professional at UN Environment’s freshwater ecosystem unit.
“Access to clean water cuts straight down the poverty line. Poor, indigenous and marginalized groups spend proportionately more time and money collecting water,” says Bernhardt, who played a key role in the creation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation. “And that’s keeping people from productive activities like work or school – often disproportionately affecting women and girls.
“Water connects to everything, and not having it is one of the things that keeps you poor.”
GREEN AND GRAY
Environmental experts such as Bernhardt say nature-based solutions (NBS) have an untapped potential to solve many water challenges, from flooding and drought to soil erosion and pollution.
Today most water management systems rely on so-called ‘gray infrastructure,’ or human-built structures like wastewater treatment plants, pipelines and reservoirs. NBS promotes a ‘green’ approach that can replace or supplement existing gray systems while being both cost-effective and environmentally sound.
Bernhardt says water management often depends on what’s happening on land, and a big part of that is forest management. One of the most effective NBS for water management, she says, is forest conservation and reforestation.
“We tend to think that trees and plants use water, but it’s actually the other way around. Trees and plants, by the nature of the shade they provide and their root structures, actually help conserve water in the ground. Even major cities like New York or São Paolo rely on forests for their drinking water.”
For example, forests protect rivers by helping regulate the overflow of water in floodplains, reducing the risk of floods. During this process, nutrient-rich sediment settles, helping purify water and reduce treatment costs downstream.
Bernhardt says safe water is just one of the many good reasons to plant trees, among a myriad of benefits for the climate and human well-being. Forests help preserve endangered species. They improve soil fertility, which in turn helps farmers meet the growing global demand for food. The list goes on.
“It’s hard to think of something so easy and impactful as replanting forests or protecting existing forests,” says Bernhardt.
But she warns that we need to plant appropriate trees – the “right” kind of trees – because plantations and some non-indigenous species can have the opposite effect and drain water resources.
Both in rural and urban areas, the impact that deforestation has on water systems has severe repercussions for public health. The UN estimates that up to one-third of all rivers are severely polluted by pathogens due largely to human and animal waste. Unsafe drinking water often carries diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, which the UN says kills some 700 children under 5 years old every day.
“If farmers use river or lake water polluted with human waste to irrigate their crops, that can also contaminate certain foods like leafy green vegetables. Without thorough cooking or cleaning, people can get sick,” Bernhardt notes.
She says community water management of local resources is key, because when people understand and are part of the benefits, they can take ownership of water planning, including integrating NBS into their planning.
DOWNING THE DRAIN
It’s not just rural livelihoods that suffer from water challenges. Between 2005 and 2015, 40 percent of watersheds supplying urban areas saw significant forest loss, and Bernhardt says there is an urgent need to address this now.
“We’ve paved over so much of the earth’s surface and continue to literally drain the swamp, and in doing so we are destroying our water resources and undermining the earth’s natural ability to regulate water supply and quality,” she says.
But Bernhardt says that doesn’t mean we stop moving forward or limit developing nations from achieving their goals.
“We don’t need to live in the stone ages and not develop. We just need to be more sustainable, construct more sustainably around forests. NBS can help with innovations like green roofs, permeable pavements and greener forms of energy including dams for hydropower or water regulation,” she adds.
Nature-based solutions for water came to the forefront in the past few years when UN-Water, which coordinates 31 UN agencies, decided to focus on the concept for the 2018 World Water Day campaign. However, to date, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of water resource management for infrastructure is going to NBS.
“The bottom line is we need to act now, and we need to achieve water and sanitation for all while working with nature,” Bernhardt says. “If we don’t, we are in big trouble.”