16 April 2019 | 8 minutes.

Water funds

Andrea Erickson-Guiroz
Acting Global Managing Director for Water at The Nature Conservancy

Andrea Erickson-Guiroz, Acting Global Managing Director for Water at The Nature Conservancy

We should look to nature for solutions to the global water crisis.

New York City faced a challenge in the 1990s: the city needed a new water filtration system to serve its nearly 8 million people. But the prospect of spending $6-10 billion on a new water treatment plant, and another $100 million on annual operating costs, was daunting… so city officials took a closer look at the source of their water: the Catskill Mountains.

Aerial view of the deforested landscape surrounding the Cachoeira Reservoir which is now set to be included in a massive tree planting project. The reservoir and surrounding watershed is part of Brazil’s Cantareira system (the largest system of public water supplies in Latin America) which provides fifty percent of Sao Paulo’s drinking water. © Scott Warren

Water from the Catskills flows through 120 miles (193 kilometres) of forests, farmlands and towns to reach New York City. When that landscape is healthy, it acts as a natural purifying system, but certain development and agricultural practices can result in impaired water quality. For city officials, reaching out to local farmers and landowners and compensating them to restore and conserve their lands in the watershed, combined with some land acquisition, proved to be significantly cheaper than building and operating a new treatment plant.

Agriculture and industry – not domestic use – represents the vast majority of water consumption.

New York’s example showed the benefits of public-private partnerships in such situations, and demonstrated that unlocking nature-based solutions can be cheaper and more efficient and produce additional benefits compared to conventional built, “grey” infrastructure. This was the moment of inspiration for water funds.

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