Paying for priceless values: forests’ role for water quality

Joint study by the UNECE and FAO highlights forest ecosystem services that protect water resources, including a comprehensive database chronicling over 200 case studies of PES in action.

Photo: UNECE

Article originally posted on UNECE.

Given the many threats to global water supply, forest management and planning will increasingly need to deploy strategies for optimizing watershed services – such as water purification, the regulation of surface flows, and erosion control. The services provided by forest ecosystems for water quality are largely underestimated. The joint UNECE and FAO study “Forests and Water – Valuation and payments for forest ecosystem services” showcases how payments for ecosystem services schemes can be applied to forests, in particular focusing on forest’s hydrological functions for the mutual benefit of both humans and the environment.

In addition, this study contains the most comprehensive database of case studies currently available on water-related payment for forest ecosystem service schemes in the UNECE region. Overall 229 schemes were identified in 23 UNECE member States, most of them located in the European Union and North America.

The sustainable supply of ecosystem services is often dependent on the stewardship of private property owners, businesses or, in some cases, governments, many of whom have insufficient resources. Payment for ecosystem services can be an incentive for valuation and, when appropriate, can serve to compensate those that have to bear the cost and efforts of maintaining services that are not typically considered in conventional market transactions. This publication draws on the analysis of many experts and case studies of national, local and private sector experiences to illustrate various existing options for forest and water resources to benefit from appropriate stewardship and strong support.

In Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Western Balkans the ownership structure and legislative frameworks are often not in favor of payment for ecosystem services schemes. However, an unconventional case demonstrating payment for ecosystem services is found in the Chon-Aksuu watershed (Issyk-Kul region, Kyrgyzstan). The problem addressed by the scheme is overgrazed pasture and degraded forests, which is leading to erosion and increased levels of suspended sediments in rivers, and lower water quality. All involved stakeholders (public servants, local residents and school pupils) increased their capacity to sustainably use existing natural resources. Benefits included the reforestation of 14 hectares, representing 37,000 seedlings of spruсе and birch trees in mountain areas, and poplar and willow trees in the valley, which amounted to a total contribution of ecosystem services beneficiaries of about USD 9,600.

The Sustainable Development Goals related to water (SDG 6) and land (SDG 15) explicitly acknowledge the linkages between forests and water. Payments for ecosystem services are not only highlighted in all relevant UN literature since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), but they are also mentioned in the context of the 2030 Agenda. “The sustainable management of forests and water supplies are crucial for the long-term success of all SDGs”, says Ekrem Yazici, Deputy Chief of the joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section, and adds: “Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes are an important tool to recognize the services forests provide”.

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EFIMED is the Mediterranean Facility of the European Forest Institute. Based in Barcelona, Spain, it was launched in 2007.