Water management best left to Mother Nature

The best way to manage our dwindling water resources is to employ the services of nature, according to the author of a new book calling for safeguards for freshwater ecosystems.

In a paper published by Worldwatch, Liquid Assets, Sandra Postel, academic and director of the US-based Global Water Policy Project, argues that we are overlooking the value of natural watercourses and our interference in the name of progress is often misguided and sometimes downright harmful.

Dam building, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are all playing havoc with a perfectly-designed system, she claims, and we need to reassess our strategy when it comes to providing clean drinking water.

“Healthy watersheds are nature’s water factories and it pays to protect them,” she said.

Forests and wetlands can churn out high-quality water supplies at a lower cost than conventional treatment plants do, while providing many other valuable benefits at the same time, from recreational enjoyment to biodiversity conservation to climate protection.

But because economists rarely put a price on these ‘ecosystem services’ and governments are failing to protect them, they are now being lost at a rapid rate, she says.

“It almost seems as if the point of public policy is to liquidate Earth’s water assets like a store going out of business,” said Ms Postel.

Her book discusses how human intervention has severely disrupted aquatic ecosystems and attention should be directed at mending ageing infrastructure and replacing leaky pipes before building expensive new dams and water treatment plants.

“By reducing waste and encouraging conservation, cities can leave more water in rivers and lakes, build fewer and smaller dams, pump less groundwater and reduce the amount of energy and chemicals needed to treat and distribute their supply,” she said.

“But in most cases watershed protection remains the neglected stepchild of water supply systems and conservation is relegated to drought-response at best.

“Distinguishing a natural disaster from a human-induced one is getting more difficult.

“Today we are apt to think our globalised and technologically sophisticated world is immune to societal collapse from ecological degradation.

“But there is no side-stepping human dependence on the water cycle and we are disrupting it in dangerous ways.

By Sam Bond

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