Andean cities unite to conserve forests and save their water supplies

More than 125 municipal governments from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are part of an ambitious new scheme to protect urban water sources by conserving upstream forest lands. (Ammit Jack/Shutterstock.com)

PARIS — More than 125 municipal governments from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are part of an ambitious new scheme to protect urban water sources by conserving upstream forest lands.

The “Watershared” initiative was announced last week at the Global Landscapes Forum, on the sidelines of the Paris climate talks. It represents an important step for cities such as Medellin, Colombia, Loja, Ecuador and others who see the protection of forests as integral to their own economic success, as well as to the success of global efforts to mitigate climate change.

“Usually the forests are very close — 10, 30, or maximum 40 kilometers away,” says Nigel Asquith, president of Natura Foundation Bolivia. “For many cities, it’s just an obvious thing to do.”

The goal of Watershared is to protect a quarter of the forests in the four countries that are important for supplying water — and to do it by 2025. This would have several climate-related impacts, the organizers say. It would protect old-growth forests that absorb carbon dioxide. At the same time, it would strengthen the resilience of urban water supplies.

Currently Watershared comprises 1,075,876 hectares of newly protected water sanctuaries, Asquith says. That’s equivalent to roughly a quarter of the land area of Switzerland.

The program will rely on fees from urban water users to build up a long-term source of funding to pay for land conservation. This would build on previous efforts in the region. For example, 11 municipalities in Ecuador joined to form a water fund that generates about US$400,000 per year. According to Natura Foundation Bolivia, the fund has paid to protect 74,000 hectares of land in southern Ecuador — land that supplies water to more than 430,000 people.

Additional funding will come from a dozen public and private sources, including the European Union, the insurance giant Swiss Re and the Overbrook and Tinker Foundations. Local institutions and municipal governments implement each program, with technical support from the organizations Natura Foundation Bolivia, Nature and Culture International (NCI) and Rare, an NGO focused on conservation.

In addition to creating funding streams, Watershared will seek to strike “reciprocal water agreements” between upstream water users such as farmers and urban water users downstream. Such agreements are intended to ensure that upstream users can continue to earn a living without fouling the water supplies.

Another strategy will be to create “water sanctuaries.” According to Natura Foundation Bolivia, these would be protected areas “above cities and towns that will protect in perpetuity the critical water sources upon which local residents depend.” For example, a regional body in the Colombian state of Antioquia is working on declaring protected areas that will contribute to the water supply of Medellin.

Asquith told Citiscope there are no major challenges for the scheme, except that “some politicians are more difficult to convince.”

“Other politicians ‘get it’ immediately,” he said, “so the uptake is quick.”

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Alecia D. McKenzie is a journalist and award-winning author based in Paris. Full bio

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