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Rio+20 Dialogues: Water scarcity under a changing climate, can forests help win the battle?

Carbon sequestration has overshadowed the variety ecosystem services forests provide.
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BOGOR, Indonesia (15 May, 2012)_ Despite recent research that has closely linked climate change and water scarcity with a rapidly rising deforestation rates, the international climate community still mainly thinks of forests in terms of their carbon storage potential rather than the critical role they play in regulating rainfall and other climate patterns. Over the last week, participants in the Rio+20 Dialogues on Sustainable Development have been discussing how forest and water managers on the ground can overcome these challenges to help solve future water problems.

Giving some examples of successful water and forest management strategies in Canadian plantation forests, Simon Bridge, Head of Knowledge and Information Management at Natural Resources Canada pointed out that it was critical that water issues be addressed if forest managers expect to achieve any type of certification for sustainable management.

“In the vast majority of Canada’s forests subject to harvesting, concerns about water quality and quantity are front and centre. There are extensive rules and regulations about building stream crossings, driving equipment through streams, leaving buffer strips around streams as well as rules about how much of a watershed can be harvested at one time.  All of these rules are designed to help protect water quality and quantity.”

Forested catchments supply a vital source of clean freshwater for human use: an estimated 75 percent of usable water globally. If kept largely intact, forests regulate the water supplies needed by rural and urban populations by influencing water yield, sediment levels, and water quality.

While trees also consume water and may reduce water yields in small to medium catchment areas, forests provide natural water filtration and storage systems that process, for example, nearly two-thirds of the water supply in the U.S. Furthermore, a vast forest such as the Amazon is able to pump significant amounts of water into the atmosphere, promoting cloud formation and movement, even thousands of kilometres away. The Río de la Plata basin is just one area that depends on evaporation from the Amazon forest for 70 percent of its water resources.

However changes in water supplies from forests due to climate change are a particular concern. Research has shown that deforestation and forest degradation in one area can negatively impact rainfall patterns in other parts of the world.

Even though water management and forestry are treated differently in every governmental set up, a common ground could be created for synergistic effects through the climate change adaptation discourse, suggested Ajay Bhave, a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.

“During a project on climate change adaptation in the Lower Ganga Basin, we found that farmers used agro-forestry and maintenance of local reserve forests for increasing soil moisture. The farmers insisted that adaptation to climate change should include forestry in a big way,” he said.

These topics and more are under debate as part of the Rio+20 Dialogues, a tool for civil society to engage in the topics under discussion at Rio in order to produce a series of recommendations that will be presented to heads of state gathering in Brazil for the Rio+20 summit.

CIFOR, along with Yale University and the University of Sao Paulo, is moderating the dialogue on forestsHere are some excerpts from the ongoing debate (please note that these have not been edited). To have your say, sign up now at www.riodialogues.org 

Manuel Guariguata
Sat May 7, 2012 at 6:01 am

This is an important question yet quite complex [eds. Question was: Do you have any examples of “best management” practices could help balance timber harvest with sustainable water flow and quality?]. We need to look first at what type of forests we are talking about.  Natural forests for timber production or planted forests for the same purpose.  In essence, if you remove trees from a forest you reduce rainfall interception and, all else being equal, you leave more water reaching the ground to eventually replenish the aquifer or else enhancing water availability to human users.  But reaching the balance is the key aspect in identifying “best practice”.  In a remote timber concession where pressure by local populations is relatively low for obtaining water, this may be less of a problem (assuming of course that good harvesting practices are applied) compared to a timber management operation whose streams feed a reservoir.

In the case of a planted forest, there is accumulated evidence that at least in the first decades after planting, water yields may be reduced “downstream” as trees use water to grow.  Here, location is everything: one would say that the essential best practice, particularly in the case of planted forests, deals with land use planning.  In light of the evidence that more timber is expected to come from planted as opposed of natural forests, the water-timber production issue becomes critical.  But since there are more options to adjust in the case of planted forests (species to plant, geology, proximity to markets, minimizing impacts on local livelihoods, small vs. large scale), these issues have more alternatives for resolution in order to balance production of goods (timber) with production of services (in this case, water regulation and provision).

Michelle Kovacevic
May 9, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thank you Manuel, but I suppose best practice only gets you so far when you consider that, historically, forest managers have not focused much of their attention on water, and water managers have not focused on forests. Does anyone have any ideas on how we ensure these groups work together closely in the future to solve today’s water problems?

Bhawani Kusum
May 10, 2012 at 6:11 am

One hundred mature trees catch about 139,000 gallons of rainwater per year. And we have practically experienced it by implementing a project of ‘wsateland development’ in India. Where even a single green leaf couldn’t be seen a few years back, there is a thick forest consisting over 80,000 trees of various species and lot of water available for the cattle of the area throughout the year. The level of underground water has increased extensively. It solved the problem of fuel and fodder of nearly 5,000 village communities, revived flora and fauna and changed the biodiversity in the area. It can be replicated every where.

Simon Bridge
Fri, May 11, 2012 at 12:31 am

I’ll agree that historically, forest managers may not have given much attention to water issues, but in my experience, that is less and less the case in countries that are seriously committed to sustainable forest management.  There are several examples in Canada I can think of.  In the province of Ontario, there are many watersheds managed by “Conservation Authorities” who leave large areas of forests and wetlands intact because they help regulate the quality and quantity of water in the rivers.  This helps provide better drinking water and helps mitigate against floods.  That’s not to say the water quality is perfect.  With a high density population in southern Ontario, there are many pressures on the water supply, but the protected forests and wetlands help.

The cities of Victoria and Halifax both maintain forested watersheds to protect their drinking water supply.  In the city of Victoria in the province of British Columbia, their forested watershed is so effective at purifying their drinking water, the only treatment they do is filtering for course debris and passing the water under a UV light.  No chemicals are added to purify the water.  Similarly, in the vast majority of Canada’s forests subject to harvesting, concerns about water quality and quantity are front and centre.  There are extensive rules and regulations about building stream crossings, driving equipment through streams, leaving buffer strips around streams as well as rules about how much of a watershed can be harvested at one time.  All of these rules are designed to help protect water quality and quantity.  Again, not that the situation is perfect…more can always be done…but water issues are front and centre for forest managers, and they certainly must be addressed if the forest manager expects to achieve any type of certification for sustainable management.

I think that one way to get better integration among the two camps – forest managers and water managers – is to get them both to think about the broader array of ecosystem goods and services that forests provide.  In sustainable forest management, this has been attempted by asking stakeholders to define the forest values they want to protect and conserve, and then developing a set of indicators to measure periodically and assess progress toward those values.

These frameworks of Criteria and Indicators for sustainable forest management have been broadly adopted around the world. In fact, the 81 countries that comprise the International Tropical Timber Organization, Forest Europe and the Montreal Process collectively represent about 95% of the world’s forests and all 81 countries produce national reports on progress toward SFM using criteria and indicators.  In and of itself, this has been a major milestone (in fact, criteria and indicators came about as a result of the original Rio conference) in helping move the debate away from defining what sustainable forest management is, and who has the authoritative data, and on to what we should be doing to achieve more progress toward SFM.  Still, much more work needs to be done to better integrate the indicator reports into policy development within countries, and reporting on soil and water issues has proven to be challenging in many jurisdictions.  But, the point is that forest managers, at least, are being forced to think about much more than just the volume or value of the wood being harvested.

Another example of this is the model forest network, which has spread around the world.  It’s also a good example of how, on a local scale, all of the stakeholders can be brought together to help define what values they want to protect and conserve in the forest, and then manage appropriately.  There must be many lessons that can be learned from these.

Parc du Mont-Tremblant, Canada. Photo courtesy of Let Ideas Compete/flickr.

Bertha K. Becker
Fri, May 11, 2012 at 01.24 pm

Certainly it is necessary to deal with forests and water together. This will be much easier if we develop an integrated plan for land use. Research and planning must go together.

deon geldenhuys
Sat, May 12, 2012 at 6:45 am

I would suggest that we could introduce educational courses that are offered to Forest and Water managers  that highlight how forests and water are inter linked .

Ajay Bhave
yesterday at 11:34 am

During a project on Climate change adaptation in the Lower Ganga Basin, we found that farmers used agro-forestry and maintenance of local reserve forests for increasing soil moisture.  They have used a variety of species and have obtained co-benefits from silk production and other forestry products.

The farmers insisted that adaptation to climate change should include forestry in a big way.  This idea complements mitigation efforts and also biodiversity conservation.  A combined approach to target sustainable development through climate change mitigation, adaptation and natural resources conservation can be pursued in this way.  A prerequisite is that the efforts should be both top down and bottom up.

Although water management and forestry are treated differently in every governmental set up, a common ground could be created for synergistic effects through the climate change adaptation discourse and implementation at the governmental level.  Coordination is difficult, but each discipline/ministry/administration should be shown that they can benefit.

Vasco Schmidt
yesterday at 04.49 pm

There is a clear need for interdiscplinary research and application to Forest management practices.

Eg. Many ecologists are solely interested in natural habitats. It would be wise to encourage, for example more research focusing on the Limnology and also Ecology of Agroforestry and of Forestry pracitces. I came across some Ecologists who are solely interested in ‘pure’ Ecology; not willing to cooperate with Forest Engineers. Vice versa, I have seen Forest Engineers only interested in Management despite having to follow modules in ecology, Linmology etc. during their education.

The trouble may also be due to the fact that unfortunately companies or even governments for whom Engineers work, and maybe not the Engineers themselves, are interested in a ‘maximum’ and short-term profit, rather than Ecoforestry practices (or low environmental impact Forestry).

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