Quito Water Fund
View a slide show of just some of the people who are benefiting from the Quito Water Fund.
“The world can’t win the war against poverty without protecting freshwater ecosystems.”So says the Conservancy's Andrew Deutz, who notes that more than half the world's population will face water shortages within 25 years and we must look for innovative ways to save water for people and nature.
— Andrew Deutz, Conservancy director of international government relations
How does freshwater conservation fight poverty?
It doesn’t directly; not without other efforts. But as Carl Sagan said, “Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water.”
The world’s rural poor are more likely to depend on lakes and rivers for their drinking water, as opposed to groundwater sources, which require wells or other hardware to access. Millions of poor people around the world depend on freshwater fish as their main source of protein. The seasonal ebbs and flows of rivers keep floodplains rich for farming in places where irrigation infrastructure and fertilizer are out of reach. I could go on.
In fact, according to a recent UN report, the poorest of the poor in India for example — people living on less than $2 per day — get more than half of their income from the benefits that nature provides.
Doesn’t this mean that conservation can run counter to the needs of the poor?
It means that conservation helps the poor secure their existing asset base — natural resources.
And it means that we can’t reach our conservation goals without addressing poverty.
In South Asia, nearly one out of every two children under five is malnourished. In Africa, it’s about one out of four. Global population is projected to go from 6.5 billion today to 9 billion 2050, and more than half of the world’s population will face water scarcity within 25 years. Agriculture is the biggest user of freshwater. So we have to help the world figure out how to produce more food for more people even though many places will have less water.
At the same time, energy needs are spurring more hydropower dams on rivers. A study co-authored by the Conservancy’s Brian Richter has revealed that large dams have had a negative impact on about half a billion poor people downstream of those dams, from loss of fish, loss of farmable land and other repercussions.
The world may well need those dams — they don’t burn global-warming-producing fossil fuels, and they can increase water storage for agriculture to feed a hungry world. The question is: Can we make smarter choices about how we dam rivers, grow food and use drinking water? I think we have to. And I think we can.
So what is the Conservancy doing that connects freshwater conservation and poverty?
Let’s look at our Water Funds in Latin America, for instance. Quito, Ecuador is flanked by three vast protected areas. Many poor people live in the parks and they clear forests or degrade grasslands as they try to make a living farming or raising cattle. That not only damages habitat for species like Andean condors, it damages rivers that provide drinking water for people in Quito.
But we can’t simply tell poor people to stop what they’re doing. We have to offer them genuine, better alternatives.
More than a decade ago, Conservancy staff figured out a way to do that. “Water Funds” gather voluntary investments from water users downstream — governments and businesses — and then give financial support to people living upstream in exchange for protecting nature.
For example, the Quito Water Fund helps local people — mainly women thus far — start new businesses of their own choosing by providing small grants and supplies, such as sewing machines to make clothing to sell or an industrial oven for making dried medicinal herbs and fruit for local markets. These women previously never had the start-up funding they needed.
The new oven means more income for these women, less pressure on wildlife habitat and better water in Quito. It is the manifestation of putting an economic value on freshwater conservation, and rewarding those who support it. This is what conservation has to look like today in order to work and to last. Water Funds are a great example of how we’re getting it right. We just need to do a lot more like this.
What makes you think that we can do a lot more like this?
Today we have new opportunities and new partners. Increasingly, others who are working to make the world a better place now see the inextricable link between their work and ours.
Back in 2000, world leaders came together and agreed upon an ambitious — but absolutely necessary — set of goals to chart a path to a sustainable, healthy and prosperous future for our planet. They’re called the Millennium Development Goals; they consist of global targets to: reduce poverty and hunger, improve health, education and gender equality, and ensure environmental sustainability.
Water is a thread that runs through all of these fundamental needs and aspirations. So more and more we are reaching beyond the environmental community and partnering with groups and agencies that focus on social welfare. We’re all working towards the same thing: a healthy, sustainable, prosperous future for our world.
I often hear the argument that conserving nature is a luxury good, something that societies should do only once they get rich enough that peoples’ basic needs for food and shelter and healthcare are satisfied. Nothing could be further from the truth.