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UNESCO Study: More Investment Needed in ‘Green’ Water Management Systems

Rohingya Muslims cross a flooded area to find an alternate shelter after their camp was inundated with rainwater near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sept. 19, 2017.

Population growth, changing consumption patterns and development are taking their toll on the world’s water supplies, and governments need to rely more on ‘green’ water management to ensure a healthy planet and meet the needs of the fast-growing global population.

That’s one of the messages in a new study by the U.N.’s cultural and scientific organization, UNESCO, presented today at a world water conference in Brazil.

Water demand is increasing by about 1 percent a year, even as climate change, pollution and erosion threaten its quality and availability. But until now, most countries have relied on traditional, man-made water management systems such as reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants. The study considers the many benefits of natural water "infrastructure" — like wetlands, urban gardens and sustainable farming practices -- and finds that very little investment has gone into these greener water management options.

Stefan Uhlenbrook, coordinator of UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Program, which authored the study, notes, "Green solutions can meet several water management solutions at the same time — improving water management, while also reducing floods or droughts. Improving access to water." He also points to multiple benefits outside the water sector, to "help store carbon, create jobs — particularly in rural environments. They can also help increase biodiversity, which is also very essential."

Women from the Tiwa tribe catch fish in a wetland at Dharamtul village in Nagaon district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India, February 19, 2017.
Women from the Tiwa tribe catch fish in a wetland at Dharamtul village in Nagaon district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India, February 19, 2017.

Striking a balance

The goal, UNESCO says, is not to scrap traditional water management options like dikes, but instead to strike the right balance between man-made systems and those relying more on Mother Nature.

Some places are starting to do that. New York City saves hundreds of millions of dollars yearly in water treatment and maintenance by protecting vast, natural watersheds. China plans to build pilot initiatives that recycle rainwater for urban consumption.

Some communities are building artificial wetlands to fight flooding and pollution. Others, like the Indian state of Rajasthan, have adopted more sustainable soil and water management practices that boost harvests and fight drought — growing challenges in the future.

Uhlenbrook says these are important steps. "We have to grow some 50 percent more food in the next 30-40 years. We have to think of how to do that without cutting more forests, cutting more trees and trying to develop more land — which is hardly possible in many places around the world."

Experts say greener water management can help to increase agricultural production by 20 percent — which may prove key in feeding a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.