Water and Ecosystems

The well-being of people all over the world depends on the various goods and services provided by ecosystems, including food, fuel, construction materials, clean water and air, and protection from natural hazards. Ecosystems, however, are under increasing pressure from unsustainable use of resources and other threats including outright conversion of lands, pollution, expansion of infrastructure and urbanisation.

Since the 50`s, the change in ecosystems has been extensive as compared to any other era in human history. This has been largely due to population growth and development which in turn has increased demand for food, water, fuel etc. As a result, loss in biodiversity has been substantial and largely irreversible. The changes have led to some net gains in human wellbeing and development but have been achieved at growing costs in form of degradation of ecosystem services and exacerbation of poverty for some groups. 

Ecosystem services are extensive and diverse, and have been grouped into the following categories: 

  • Provisioning services: products obtained from ecosystems, including food, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals and freshwater;
  • Regulating services: benefits provided by the regulation of ecosystem processes, such as air quality regulation, climate regulation, cycling and movement of nutrients and soil formation and regeneration, flood and drought mitigation, erosion control, prevention against disease and pest and disease attack by regulating disease carrying organisms;
  • Supporting services: those that are necessary for the production of other ecosystem services. They differ from provisioning, regulating, and cultural services in that their impacts on people are often indirect or occur over a very long time, whereas changes in the other categories have relatively direct and short-term impacts on people. These services include: soil formation, photosynthesis, primary production, nutrient cycling and water cycling.
  • Cultural services are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences, including: cultural diversity, spiritual and religious values, knowledge systems, educational values, inspiration, aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations, cultural heritage, recreation and tourism. 

The conservation of ecosystem services, due to the essential role they play in supporting the natural provision of water for all human and economic activities, mitigating the destructive effects of water-related disasters (floods and droughts) and providing other critical services for sustaining human wellbeing, is considered essential for achieving and maintaining water security.  Nature also needs water to ensure the provision of those services, therefore, water security basically depends on the conservation of ecosystem services.  

It is broadly recognised that the water crisis is essentially a governance crisis. Despite considerable progress made by some countries, the lack of policies, norms and standards, the limited application of IWRM principles, the lack of economic and financial mechanisms to ensure sustainable funding for water management, the insufficient water management planning, and unclear institutional roles and responsibilities throughout water-related sectors, are all crucial aspects that need to be addressed to ensure sound water resources management.  An improved water governance framework requires full consideration of elements that enable the maintenance and restoration of ecosystems services.