Nepal | July 02, 2020

Forests form buffer against water crisis, says a report

THT Online
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Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

KATHMANDU: Water crisis is in the verge of taking a global form, exacerbated by growing global population and accelerated climate change. The solution to this problem, at least in part, is expected to come from paying more attention to forests.

The correlation between these two factors has been addressed in a new and comprehensive scientific assessment report released today at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, in New York. 

More than 50 scientists from 20 countries including Nepal contributed to the assessment of forests-water-climate-people link. The report underscores the importance of embracing the complexity and uncertainty of forests-water-climate-people linkages to prevent irrational decision-making with unintended consequence.

The relationships among forests, water, climate and people are complex, go largely unrecognised and lead to the question: What can people do with, to, and for forests to ensure a sustainable quality and quantity of water necessary to the health and well-being of both?

The publication, entitled “Forest and Water on a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities. A Global Assessment Report” has been prepared by the Global Forest Expert Panel (GFEP) on Forests and Water, an initiative of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) led by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO).

“Governments and all stakeholders wanting to achieve the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals related to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) need to understand that water is central to attaining almost all of these goals, and forests are inseparably tied to water,” says Hiroto Mitsugi, Assistant Director-General, Forestry Department, FAO, and Chair of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests.

More than seven billion humans currently on this planet share water with approximately three trillion trees. Forests’ role in the water cycle is at least as important as their role in the carbon cycle in the face of climate change. In addition to being the lungs of the planet, they also act as kidneys. Thus, addressing forests-water-people-climate links wisely, comprehensively and expeditiously is crucial to our long-term well-being, if not survival.

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Nepal is already hit by water crises and is addressed in the report, Susan Tonassi on behalf of the International Union of Forest Research Organisations shared. “Aditi Mukherji from International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and Dipak Gyawali from the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology contributed to the report.”

The document highlights that watershed experts of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation have already made some counter-intuitive findings in Bagmati watershed regarding the role of traditional recharge ponds, landslides and village spring flow enhancement. Finding landslide control with conventional check-dam building both expensive and ineffective, the Bagmati watershed managers experimented with reviving ponds on the ridge tops, most of which were also buffalo wallowing ponds but had been abandoned and silted up.

They found that for a minimal cost of cleaning up the ponds or excavating new ones, landslides were stabilised. The post-hoc explanation is that by putting a break on the flow of floodwaters gushing down during heavy rainfall, the erosive power of water was significantly reduced.

Similarly, drying of mid-hill springs were related to either earthquake disturbances or social drivers such as out-migration of youth, decline in livestock and the concomitant abandonment of buffalo wallowing ponds that also served as sources of recharge; unregulated use of PVC pipes and electric pumps; shift from dryland crops to water-intensive vegetable farming etc.

Given that rainfall was as stochastic as ever and there was no noticeable decline in precipitation, climate change could not account for the current situation although it is predicted to exacerbate the situation unless the current drivers are first addressed.

There is, the report says, a clear policy gap in climate-forest-water relations that is waiting to be filled. It argues that ensuring the continued flow of ‘green water’– the water moving through trees, plants and soils — is the only way to maintain a healthy global water system.

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