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Protecting our water sources brings a wealth of benefits

Andrea Erickson's picture

The journey of our water from source to tap is long, and not one we think much about. For most of us, our water starts high in the mountains, hundreds of miles away. From there, water flows across natural and working lands until a portion is channeled to water pipes that move water to our faucets, to farms, and to various types of businesses. Most often we think of those pipes as being our main water infrastructure, but upstream lands play a key role in capturing, storing and moving our water. By conserving these lands, we can better protect our water and generate additional benefits for people and nature.  
Today, approximately 40 percent of the land in urban source watersheds of the world’s largest cities show high to moderate levels of degradation. This degradation impacts the present and future quality and reliability of water flows. However, by investing in nature, we can reduce these impacts.

A new report released by The Nature Conservancy, Beyond the Source: The environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection, shows that forest protection, reforestation, and the use of cover crops can help four out of five of the 4,000 cities analyzed reduce sediment and nutrient pollution in waterways by a meaningful amount.

For one in six cities analyzed in the report, the cost of implementing source water protection activities could be recouped through savings in annual water treatment costs alone. For half of the cities analyzed, these activities could be implemented for about US$2 per person annually.

These nature-based solutions also provide a number of co-benefits, including improving the health and well-being of people, preserving biodiversity, capturing and storing carbon and building more climate-resilient communities. When cities “stack” the value of these co-benefits on top of the savings realized in water treatment costs, they can derive even greater value.
Maximizing the benefits of conservation activities will require collective action. Water funds, which enable downstream water users to jointly invest in upstream land conservation and restoration, are a successful mechanism for securing improved water quality and, in some cases, more reliable flows.

For example, in Nairobi, Kenya, high sediment levels in the Tana River from agricultural run-off and development in the mountains catalyzed the development of Africa’s first water fund. Partners in the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund jointly invest in providing upstream farmers with the training, resources and equipment they need to help keep the river healthy, conserve water and reap the benefits of higher crop yields and more stable farms. The fund also has downstream projected benefits including improved water yields and reduced sediment in the river. An analysis of the water fund structure showed that even by conservative estimates, the selected watershed interventions could deliver a two-to-one return on investment on average over a 30-year timeframe. During a recent trip to Kenya, the message from water fund investors and participants was clear: it's in their best interest to make this work. Taking care of the land will ensure the longevity of the agricultural community and create a more sustainable water future throughout the watershed.
As cities and populations grow, and climate change adds undue pressure on vulnerable freshwater systems, maintaining healthy lands around our water sources will be increasingly vital to the future of our water security. By investing in nature, we also invest in our future.
Download the report at or visit to explore the data using an interactive map.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Bank.*


Submitted by Ed Bourque Consulting on

Firstly, I would like to say what a beautiful website and report you have created!

I certainly see the value and applicability to water source protection, but what I am unclear on is its application to truly a truly urban wastewater situation.

In the case of water source protection (which seems to be the general context of the report's examples), one is not only dealing with broad, generally non-point non urban (agricultural, really) runoff and a watershed management methodology- stakeholders collectively doing something long term and positive in all of their interests.

In the case of, say, point and non point wastewater,CSOs, greywater, blackwater/fecal waste, etc., it seems to me like not only is the pollution prevention game a bit hairier, complex, and more expensive but also that one is dealing with a situation where the stakeholders really aren't accountable, representative,etc and , honestly, just wrangling all the relevant people in a room (city managers, industry, neighborhood groups, ) is a greater challenge. In short, a city is a place where the externalities are a lot harder to reconcile.

I hope I'm way off base with this conjecture. I'd love to hear some examples of complex urban waste management governance works.

Ed Bourque


Thanks for your comments and for bringing up this important note about urban stormwater management and wastewater issues. While natural solutions are critical to water security, we recognize they must complement smart investments in grey infrastructure to be successful.

The Nature Conservancy is actively exploring hybrid approaches in places like Seattle. There, our Cities program is involved in a partnership that’s supplementing traditional means of treating stormwater with rain gardens, floodplains management and other natural solutions to capture and filter water. The approach, and others in cities such as Philadelphia, includes an emphasis on green infrastructure on public and private lands and exploring incentive programs to encourage participation.

In Washington, D.C., as you may know, there’s already a tax on stormwater. The Conservancy is working there to create a new investment model for projects that reduces both runoff and the resultant stormwater fees across the community.

Through these projects and many others, we are seeing evidence that the platform a water fund provides can support local communities and leaders in engagement on further issues. For instance, in Mexico, the Monterrey Metropolitan Water Fund already has $8 million pledged from the private sector and is currently supported by 60 diverse partners to carry out their objectives of flood reduction, improved infiltration, heightened awareness of water issues and building of resource management skills. We think water funds that improve water after governance can help address larger governance challenges in the sector.

Submitted by mohammad ibrahim on

But what about the lifting of drinking water and wastage it in the name of agriculture specially for paddy crop

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