Protected forests crucial to supplying the world's biggest cities with cheaper clean water

A new study by World Bank-WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use shows that protecting forest areas provides a cost-effective means of supplying many of the world's biggest cities with high quality drinking water, providing significant health and economic benefits to urban populations.


Gland, Switzerland, Sept. 5, 2003 - A new study by World Bank-WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use shows that protecting forest areas provides a cost-effective means of supplying many of the world's biggest cities with high quality drinking water, providing significant health and economic benefits to urban populations.

The new report, Running Pure, shows that more than a third of the world's 105 biggest cities - including New York, Jakarta, Tokyo, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Nairobi, and Melbourne - rely on fully or partly protected forests in catchment areas for much of their drinking water.

Well-managed natural forests minimize the risk of landslides, erosion, and sedimentation. They substantially improve water purity by filtering pollutants, such as pesticides, and in some cases capture and store water.

According to the report, adopting a forest protection strategy can result in massive savings. It is, for example, much cheaper to protect forests than to build water treatment plants.

In New York, the adoption of such a strategy will be seven times cheaper than building and operating a treatment plant.

With over a billion mainly poor city dwellers still deprived of drinking water or adequate sanitation, WWF believes it is the responsibility of all urban areas, irrespective of their size, to maintain and invest in high quality drinking water.

"Some cities that are currently struggling with unsafe water supplies should protect, manage, and where necessary restore forests in strategic places. This would both help them secure their supply of clean water and save billions of dollars," said Dr Chris Elliott, Director of WWF's Forests for Life Programme. "However, good quality drinking water for city dwellers should not come at the expense of people living in catchment areas, and any protection or management scheme should be fully negotiated with local stakeholders."

According to the report, better enforcement of the protected status is also needed as several of the forest protected areas around big cities still suffer from harmful activities, such as illegal land use and logging.

Mount Kenya, for example, saves Kenya's economy more than US$20 million a year through protecting the water catchment area of two of the country's main river systems.

However, illegal charcoal burning, logging, and road construction are still rife on Mount Kenya - severely impacting the quality of water going to the capital, Nairobi.

Similarly, the forests surrounding Istanbul, Turkey, are threatened by illegal housing developments, inappropriate land use policies, and disputes at national and local authority level.

Today, water-related diseases kill millions of people each year, and in urban areas with inadequate freshwater supply, poor sanitation, and bad hygiene practices, the infant mortality rate is 10-20 times the norm.

With around half of the world's population currently living in towns and cities, these problems are likely to increase in the future as populations and cities continue to grow rapidly, the study further notes.

"Conserving whole catchment areas to protect water supplies for cities provides a good example of how investing in environmental health benefits both people and nature," said David Cassells, Senior Environmental Specialist for Forest Resources with the World Bank, and Co-Chair of the Forest Alliance. "For many cities, time is running out. Protecting forests around water catchment areas is no longer a luxury but a necessity. When they are gone, the costs of providing clean and safe drinking water to urban areas will increase dramatically."

WWF calls on governments and donor agencies to significantly increase their efforts in protecting water catchment areas if they are to reduce poverty and halve the number of people without adequate access to water by 2015 - a target set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development last year.

The need for long-term protection of these areas will be at the heart of the forthcoming World Park Congress, in Durban, South Africa (8-17 September).

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