From San Francisco to Sao Paulo, we see evidence of the global water crisis in decade-long droughts, devastating floods, and out-of-control wildfires. Climate change is amplifying these threats while continued population growth puts greater demands on our water systems. As a result, water users, governments, and businesses around the world are increasingly recognizing the critical role that healthy ecosystems play in assuring clean, safe water.

Most cities and nations are trying to fix 21st century problems with 20th century technology. They turn to standalone “gray infrastructure” – massive public works made of steel and concrete, such as dams, treatment plants, and storm drain networks – with results that can be inadequate at best, harmful at worst. The ability of gray infrastructure to support water security is itself threatened by ecosystem degradation.

To build a water management paradigm that can meet these 21st century challenges, Forest Trends’ Water Initiative works to promote a fundamentally new approach. This approach combines “gray infrastructure” with “green infrastructure”, such as forests, grasslands, and wetlands, which encompasses a range of solutions, ranging from the protection of forests, wetlands, and grasslands, to nature-based engineering as seen in green roofs or even indigenous infiltration canals. Green infrastructure can act as a buffer to extreme weather and climate events, such as droughts and floods. It can also prevent erosion and filter out contaminants, protecting clean water.

A strategy incorporating green infrastructure can be more cost-effective and less energy intensive than one that exclusively relies on gray infrastructure. For example, controlling erosion can lower sediment pollution and thereby reduce the costs of running a nearby water treatment plant.

To realize the potential of green infrastructure for our water security, Forest Trends’ Water Initiative partners with water sector leaders, policymakers, and green infrastructure developers to systematically tackle bottlenecks that are keeping green infrastructure out of the mainstream. Specifically, we work to scale-up green infrastructure by building the evidence base for green infrastructure, strengthening the capacity of key institutions and green infrastructure champions, and developing next-generation finance models for green infrastructure.

Building the Evidence Base for Green Infrastructure

To address practical challenges for developers of green infrastructure projects as well as decision-makers, Forest Trends, together with other leading non-governmental organizations in this field and water sector professionals, is working on a robust evidence base that better quantifies and communicates the hydrological and economic benefits of green infrastructure. We are developing methodologies, case studies, and tools that range from hydrological diagnostics to cost-effectiveness analyses to long-term master planning.

 

Strengthening Capacity of Key Institutions and Green Infrastructure “Champions”

Forest Trends also works with experts and organizations to build their capacity to design, finance, and implement green infrastructure projects. For example, Forest Trends has developed the first-ever comprehensive green infrastructure online course for the water sector, in collaboration with the Association of Latin American Water Utility Regulators (ADERASA) and green infrastructure financing experts EcoDecision.

Developing Next-Generation Finance Models for Green Infrastructure

To bring green infrastructure to scale, Forest Trends also works with public and private sector leaders, green infrastructure developers, and finance experts to develop a new generation of business models for water-stressed cities and regions. These models bring better infrastructure within reach by leveraging private capital to stretch the spending power of water users, utilities, and governments. In addition to overcoming cash flow hurdles, these adaptive business models help fill key capacity gaps that traditional approaches don’t address.

Capacity Building for Water

New approaches to making water management systems more resilient and cost-effective require new ways of thinking and doing, and new skills and experiences. The specific nature of these solutions is also heavily dependent on the local context, the particular problem at hand, the topography of the region, and the way its landscapes are being managed.

Forest Trends works with influential water sector professionals and organizations to build their capacity to design, finance, and implement green infrastructure projects. We collaborate closely with regional partners to learn about and understand the particulars of the local situation; these partners bring perspectives from numerous sectors and constituencies: from civil society organizations to policymakers to water regulators to communities.

For example, Forest Trends has developed the first-ever comprehensive online green infrastructure course for the water sector, in collaboration with the Association of Latin American Water Utility Regulators (ADERASA) and green infrastructure financing experts EcoDecision.

Financing Models & Strategies for Water

To deliver real water benefits, along with economic and environmental “co-benefits,” green infrastructure needs to be integrated on a meaningful scale – and thus financed on a meaningful scale. That might seem simple, but in reality it requires a radical paradigm shift in the way our public and private institutions think about infrastructure – and the financial means to implement and maintain it.

Already, water users, governments, and businesses worldwide are starting to recognize the value of green infrastructure, both in terms of securing water supply and reducing water risks, and have begun to increase their investments in these measures. Forest Trends’ Water Initiative works to not only demonstrate the cost effectiveness of such investments, but also to regularly catalogue and analyze them in our “State of Watershed Investments” report. The report includes both a global and regional overviews of these investments along with real-world case studies of how these investments are structured.

Generally, investments in the green infrastructure of watersheds have been growing at a robust rate of about 12% annually over the past 10 years and currently amount to about $25 billion per year. But look more closely and you’ll see that government subsidies represent the vast majority of these watershed investments while other sources remain untapped, keeping these investments from reaching their full potential.

One sector of the watershed investment marketplace that is currently underutilized is that of water users – water utilities, hydropower generators, irrigator associations, bottling plants, households, and others who stand to benefit directly from improvements in watershed services.

In Lima, Peru, we’re seeing what those benefits could look like. Here, the national water utility regulator SUNASS has allocated portions of the tariff that water users pay to their utilities to go to green infrastructure projects and climate change adaptation. Forest Trends is now working with the water utility for Lima on a 30-year master plan that lays out how nature-based interventions can complement the existing gray infrastructure to ensure the region’s long-term access to clean and safe water.

Forest Trends’ Water Initiative is also at the forefront of next-generation business models for water-stressed cities and regions, working with public and private sector leaders, green infrastructure developers, and finance experts (see here for an example). These models bring better infrastructure within reach by leveraging private capital to stretch the spending power of water users, utilities, and governments, while also helping to fill key capacity gaps that traditional approaches don’t address.

Policy and Governance for Water

Pioneering innovative approaches to water management is one thing. Making sure those approaches have a lasting impact is another. It requires the backing of a regulatory framework with legislation in place to ensure that successful prototypes can become the norm going forward.

Therefore, in promoting a new approach that combines “green” and “gray” solutions, Forest Trends works very closely with policy makers to ensure that these innovative solutions become established practice.

  • We have partnered with the Ministry of Environment of Peru to form the Peru Ecosystem Services Project Incubator, which has played an important role in advancing investments in watershed services in Peru. Among key milestones supported by the Incubator was the passage and consolidation of groundbreaking Ecosystem Services Compensation Mechanisms Law; the Incubator has also facilitated critical cross-sectoral partnerships, especially with the drinking water sector. National policy reforms in that sector, led by national water utility regulator SUNASS and also supported by Forest Trends and our partners, are resulting in significant and systematic new allocations of funds from the water tariff to watershed conservation.
  • In Ghana, Forest Trends and our partners convened a multi-year effort on investments in watershed services with a Technical Working Group composed of nine national agencies that contribute to water resources management. The cross-sectoral effort has resulted in the establishment of the Kakum Basin Board, which will direct watershed investments with funds from water users.
  • At the regional level, Forest Trends has been a close partner of ADERASA, the Association of Water Regulators in Latin America. With Forest Trends support, ADERASA has convened a diverse and enthusiastic group of water regulators, water utilities, consulting firms, and green infrastructure experts in the region since 2015, resulting in the adoption of guidelines on green infrastructure by ADERASA, and the development and implementation of a training on tools for implementing green infrastructure in the Latin American water sector.