Water Funds

Could a Bright Idea from Quito, Ecuador, Help Keep Your Water Clean?
You’re sleepy. You stand at the bathroom basin, squeeze a dollop of toothpaste on the brush, wet it and suds up your chompers.

You didn’t even think about the water, did you? You just turned on the faucet and out came clean water.

When 15-year-old Alejandra Aguirre turns on her faucet in Quito, Ecuador, she thinks about the water. Her mom, Silvia Benitez, is a scientist with The Nature Conservancy so Ale knows that natural lands high up in the Andes Mountains determine whether she and millions of other city dwellers in the region get a regular supply of clean water.

She also knows that those lands hadn’t been adequately protected — until her mom and other Conservancy experts and partners came up with an ingenious way to fix that.

Thanks, Nature!

Dirt isn’t usually the hero in a story about water. But underneath lush grasslands – called páramo – that blanket the upper slopes of the Andes lies a unique kind of dirt. Because it stays so cool up here organic matter doesn’t break down as small as it does in warmer areas, so the dirt is loose and chunky, with lots of tiny nooks and crannies.

This enables it to act like a sponge. It soaks up water, stores it and — like a sponge gently squeezed — releases a slow and steady supply of clean water down the slopes, through forests, towards valley cities like Quito and Bogota, Colombia.

The problem is that people who live in these remote natural areas have few options for income, so to support their families they convert páramo and forest into ranches and farms. That not only means loss of habitat for plants and animals; it means loss of natural water tanks and cleaning filters.

In 2000, local Conservancy staff saw a looming problem spurred by competing needs between upstream and downstream water users. They also saw an opportunity.

Connect the Dots

Explore our interactive graphic to find out how the Conservancy used business savvy to craft a new solution that is preserving habitat for plants and animals, hiring park guards, enabling women to start new businesses and helping keep drinking water sources clean for Ale and 11 million other people in Ecuador and Colombia.

This solution is called a water fund. It could be used just about anywhere that there are water users downstream who see more value in preserving the water services that nature provides than investing solely in engineered responses, like water treatment plants.

That’s why we’re so excited about this solution. We see enormous potential to create water funds all around the world to protect nature and water supplies. Maybe even yours. No special dirt required.