Water, water everywhere and every drop to drink

One of the challenges facing conservation projects, is how to pay for them in a long-term sustainable way. Funding from grant awarding bodies is generally tied to specific donor interests and available on timescales of one to three years. Whilst more philanthropic funds from individuals or foundations gives more flexibility, these require results in the short-term, from work addressing problems that have taken decades to arise.

One innovative approach to long-term sustainable funding, that Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been developing, is deriving funds from assigning a financial value to the services provided by functioning ecosystems, known as Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES for short.

The basic concept of PES is simple. Those that maintain an ecosystem, which provides a service such as fresh water, are rewarded and those that impact the service, through reducing its quality or quantity, pay compensation. To give an example, a rural community protecting an area of mountain forest that acts as a watershed, providing fresh water for those in a town further downstream is paid by those downstream for providing the water, thereby continuing the protection of the forest.

Now say, for example, the government allows a company to build a hydro-power dam mid-way between the upstream community and the downstream town, the company would then be required to make a payment to the community for protecting the forest and providing water, and the company would also pay the towns people downstream to compensate them for reduced water supply.

Like all things though, the devil is in the detail. Whilst some services are easy to understand, such as providing clean water and air, other services such as storing carbon or preventing greenhouse gas emissions, or maintaining soil stability are conceptually more difficult.

There is also the issue over what is an appropriate level of payment for the service. Equally who actually owns the service being provided or the land from which it comes and therefore who should be paid, and how can we ensure that those actually providing the service (the mountain community in the above example) actually get the payments and not a corrupt government official, issues of governance and equitable benefit sharing as practitioners call it. Plus there are issues over legislation and policy that all make PES, which is conceptually very easy, very hard in reality. Despite this, FFI is working hard across many of its projects to investigate and improve the potential of PES, as a way of protecting and conserving ecosystems.

Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Living in Singapore, I am exposed to one form of PES that is clearly working very well, and for very good reason, but it does show that if everything is in place, PES has great potential. In the 1960s, Singapore faced a severe water problem. With no natural aquifers and very little land it frequently experienced water shortages and the natural water that was available was highly polluted. The country was dependant on water imported from neighbouring Malaysia, a vulnerable situation no state, especially one with aspirations to be a world-leader, wants to be in. So, through its Public Utility Board (PUB) the Singapore Government started an integrated system to improve the ecosystem services of water provision.

Firstly, the PUB developed a water management system known as the ‘Four National Taps’ to provide water from a variety of sources and started a national infrastructure scheme that cleaned up the Singapore River, building the Marina Barrage and created the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System to transport waste around the island. To get buy-in from the people living in Singapore the PUB started the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme to transform Singapore’s natural water sources into clean and pleasant areas, with places like the MacRitchie and Central Catchment reservoirs becoming the island’s wildlife hotspots. Over 100 community-based projects are being developed to help people understand the importance of maintaining clean water supplies and using less water.  Including schemes as enhancing waterways as part of the islands Parkway Connector Network (PCN) which connects green spaces.

Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

The end result is as I sit here writing this, amidst the rainy season, I know that every drop of rain that falls is being coerced through over 7000 km of drains and ditches and the 32 rivers into the 15 reservoirs to come out of my tap as drinkable water, a situation unique amongst the neighbouring Asia countries. It’s a PES scheme that works, but only because the issues of governance, policy, legislation and benefit sharing are clear and “enforced” by the city state’s government.

Payments for the service come from the government and the consumers through their water bills, but increased awareness of the issues means that they are willing to do so. It does show though, that if everything is in place, PES can work, and if we are to fund conservation into the future, it has to work.