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The Answer Lies in Nature
David James Molden
3 mins Read
The theme for World Water Day 2018, Nature for Water, explores how we can use nature-based solutions to overcome the water challenges of the 21st century. I find the theme very timely for the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), as it urges us to pause and reflect on the pace and determination with which the world is rushing to put in place more artificial structures to manage water to meet a variety of needs. In mountain areas, the development of water infrastructure is also high on the agenda, but we need to give special consideration to mountain issues including equity, ecosystem fragility, climate risks, and environmental concerns.
The HKH, ICIMOD’s work area, is well endowed with water resources. The region receives atmospheric water from the monsoon and westerly disturbances, which nourish its snow fields and glaciers, its lakes, natural wetlands, and underground acquirers. These, in turn, work as huge natural reservoirs, providing water to ten major rivers descending from the mountains to the plains of South Asia. The pulse of life of Asian societies is in tune with the rains, and snow melt from glaciers and snow. The HKH river basins meet the needs for drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, fishery, and inland navigation, among other things, of more than 1.9 billion people living in the mountains and downstream.
Already, access to water in the region is a major concern, yet some projections show that the region will require an additional 30–50% water in the next few decades and water demand in the agricultural sector could rise by up to 80% by 2050. Additionally, climate change is likely to alter seasonal variability in the flow of water in the HKH, exacerbating the problem of too much-too little water in the region.
Countries in the HKH face the daunting task of meeting these water demands of a growing, and wealthier population. It is no wonder that water infrastructure development is high on the agenda. However, most attention goes to “grey infrastructure” the dams, canals, and pipes that people normally think about when they think of water. At ICIMOD, we believe that “grey infrastructure” is important, and needs to be implemented with adequate consideration of social and environmental concerns.
We also believe that grey infrastructure is best if implemented in combination with “green infrastructure.” Water storage, for example, may be achieved through natural wetlands. Soil moisture and/or groundwater recharge can be more sustainable and cost-effective means of ensuring water availability. Conservation agriculture can drastically reduce pollution from agriculture. Establishing riparian buffers and connecting rivers to floodplains can help manage extreme flooding events. Our glaciers, although shrinking, are still a natural reserve of water.
ICIMOD takes landscape level and river basin approaches, which ensure the sustainable management of natural capital in the mountains, and account for their impacts in downstream areas. The application of innovative approaches – like valuing natural capital and showing how natural resources contribute to societal wellbeing in sustainable ways – has the potential to bring transformational change in the HKH. ICIMOD believes in balancing conservation with development, and instruments such as payment for ecosystem services (PES) could help ensure this balance.
The world is celebrating this day with a campaign built around finding answers in nature. The message is clear. Nature-based solutions, such as planting trees to replenish forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains, and restoring wetlands, are sustainable and cost-effective ways to help rebalance water cycles, mitigate effects of climate change, and improve human health and livelihoods. Global climate action is urgently required to slow the shrinking of glaciers and ice reserves. I believe such solutions are also a means to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
On this day, let us all commit to conserving nature and securing sustainable water supplies for mountain people and downstream communities, in the HKH and beyond.
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