Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Worth of Water

Protecting our Watersheds - a message from Mexico

Bowen Island is blessed by water, but do we value it accordingly?
Photo credit: Robyn Hooper
By Robyn Hooper 
MF and MSc Candidate (UBC and SLU)

What would we do without water? Clean drinking water, specifically, is something we take for granted on Bowen Island and British Columbia. Our wild environment provides the important service of cleaning and filtering our water. The lower mainland boasts of having world-class drinking water quality, thanks to the “ecosystem services” provided by our natural environment, which purifies our water for safe human consumption. All we need to do is “turn on the tap” so to speak. In Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, people voluntarily put money towards the protection of Sierra mountain area where their water comes from. Would such a program maintain our local water supplies into the future and protect against threats to water quality?

Payment for Watershed Services Program in Saltillo, Mexico
The “Payment for Watershed Services” program in Saltillo started for the city residents to pay - voluntarily - for the Sierra catchment area to be protected. Although the catchment area is technically a reserve, increasing agricultural and human developments threaten the watershed. So, a group of NGOs started the program in 2003 as a scheme to encourage “local guardians of the watershed”. The first challenge of the program was educating locals about where their water resources come from, which initiated a campaign entitled “Por una razón de peso (a reason of one peso)”. Values from the watershed not only include water resources, but recreation and educational services as well. The program has been successful in gaining contributions from 14% of the population, but in small amounts, such as around ten to twenty five cents annually on their water bill. However, the small donations add up - about $6,000 USD was donated in 2008 alone. These donations are managed by a respected citizen support group with expertise from organizations such as the WWF. Project proposals by land-owners are submitted and analyzed by a panel of experts. Also, projects are not only about complete protection of the forest, but include conservation and restoration activities. 
Where our water comes from - the 7 Bowen Island municipality
water systems. Source: Bowen Island Municipality website.

There are many interesting elements to the program in Saltillo, Mexico that contribute to its success. Primarily, the voluntary payment scheme means that people are choosing on their own to protect the natural environment that provides them with services. In addition, the donations are kept by the local communities for projects as opposed to management by larger organizations or companies. However, the expert and global NGO involvement ensures that the projects are useful and worthwhile activities.

Payment for Ecosystem Services on Bowen Island?
Bowen Island residents currently do not have a program to pay for the services our ecosystem provides, such as water resources. However, this is because we are lucky to have clean water resources and abundant forest Crown land. In the long-term with growing population how can we develop programs to ensure water quality? While our context differs considerably from Saltillo, Mexico, payments for ecosystem services programs are springing up in more- and less-developed countries all over the world. Now that we have put off the idea of a National Park on Bowen (a conservation scheme that might have added more security to our water resources), it is important we consider how our land is managed to ensure protection of our water resources. Voluntary payments and protection schemes would be a concept to consider in the long-term. The message from Mexico is this: we are blessed with our clean water, so let’s ensure the protection of the land that provides that service.

Robyn Hooper is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and candidate for a Dual Masters program (Masters of Science and Masters of Forestry). She has a background in conservation science and international issues. Robyn grew up on Bowen Island and continues to visit her family there.

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