Improving Water Security Through Nature-Based Solutions

Global report explores the environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection

Arlington, VA | January 12, 2017
As demand continues to increase for clean and reliable water around the world, protecting the land surrounding our water sources is vital. The Nature Conservancy released a new study today, developed in partnership with the Natural Capital Project, Forest Trends, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Latin American Water Funds Partnership, which analyzes the source watersheds of more than 4,000 large cities around the world. “Beyond the Source: The environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection,” illustrates how nature-based solutions, such as reforestation and improved agricultural practices, can be implemented at a scale to make a visible difference in sustainable development and improving the lives of billions of people.
Source watersheds collect, store and filter water, and when managed well, provide a number of additional benefits to people and nature.  The study finds that four out of five cities analyzed can meaningfully reduce sediment and nutrient pollution through implementing forest protection, reforestation and using cover crops as an  agricultural practice to improve water quality.
“Protecting the land around our water sources is critical to ensuring our water supplies for the future,” said Giulio Boccaletti, global managing director of the Conservancy’s Water program. “Unfortunately, 40 percent  of source watershed areas show high to moderate levels of degradation. The impacts of these changes on water security can be severe.”
Nature-based solutions also provide a number of co-benefits. Notably, capturing and storing CO2 emissions and reducing the impacts of climate change (including droughts, floods, fires and land erosion) that disproportionately affect the poorest communities. They also preserve plant and animal biodiversity and build more resilient and healthy communities by protecting fisheries and improving farmland.
“By placing a value on these co-benefits, we can mobilize innovative and cost effective pathways needed for funding habitat protection and land management activities,” said Andrea Erickson-Quiroz, managing director of water security at The Nature Conservancy.
The report estimates that an increase of US$42 billion to US$48 billion annually to what is already spent on watershed environmental service payment programs is required to achieve an additional 10 percent of sediment and nutrient reductions in 90 percent of source watersheds. This level of funding represents about 7 to 8 percent of the global expenditure on water and is commensurate to what cities like New York City spend on watershed protection. With this level of funding, water security could be improved for at least 1.4 billion people by focusing on the most cost-effective watersheds for water security purposes. For half of the cities analyzed, source water protection could cost just US$2 or less per person per year.
Water funds, which enable downstream water users to fund upstream land conservation and restoration, are highlighted as a successful mechanism for securing improved water quality and in some cases more reliable flows. The report highlights that one in six cities—roughly 690 cities serving more than 433 million people globally—has the potential to fully offset conservation costs through water treatment savings alone. Other cities can derive additional value from co-benefits and “stack” the total value to realize a positive return on investment.  
Global examples of source water protection activity:

Water security improvements

Nairobi, Kenya – The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund supports local farmers while reducing sediment in the Tana River that hinders water delivery and hydropower production.
Zhejiang Province, China – The Longwu Water Fund in China helps farmers transition to organic methods of bamboo farming, which reduces fertilizer runoff into water sources.

Climate change mitigation
São Paulo, Brazil – Reforestation of barren hillsides helps reduce sedimentation of water sources and provides carbon sequestration benefits.
Climate change adaptation Rio Grande, New Mexico, U.S.A. – Forest fuel reduction reduces the intensity of potential wildfires and subsequent sediment runoff into water sources.
Monterrey, Mexico – Reforestation supports infiltration of water into the ground and reduces erosion during high rainfall. 

Human health and well-being
Pucará, Bolivia – Improved agricultural practices reduce water pollution and water-borne disease in nearby communities.
Cauca Valley, Colombia – Planting trees among crops provides farmers with new sources of food and income and reduces erosion.
Biodiversity conservation
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Reforestation improves water quality and provides habitat for diverse plant and animal life.
In addition to overcoming financial barriers, forward-looking cities, utilities, land stewards, lawmakers, corporations and philanthropists are needed to take steps to secure a more sustainable water future and support the development of healthier, more resilient communities. 
“Our aspirations for a better world require collective action,” said Erickson-Quiroz. “We cannot afford to work in jurisdictional, financial or motivational silos. Cities can lead, but they cannot do it alone. All of us have a role to play.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The full report, along with videos, infographics and photos, can be downloaded at and an interactive site featuring maps and data from the report can be found at    

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.

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