Making water the engine for climate action

Much progress has been made on water security over recent decades, yet for the first time in human history, our collective actions have pushed the global water cycle out of balance. Water is life: it is essential for health, food, energy, socioeconomic development, nature and livable cities. It is hardly surprising that the climate and biodiversity crises are also a water crisis, where one reinforces the other. Already, a staggering four billion people suffer from water scarcity  for at least one month a year and two billion people lack access to safely-managed drinking water. By 2030, global water demand will exceed availability by 40 percent. By 2050, climate-driven water scarcity could impact the economic growth of some regions by up to 6 percent of their Gross Domestic Product per year.

Meike van Ginneken, Water Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Right now, the world’s first Global Stocktake is assessing the progress being made toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and global leaders are convening at COP28 in Dubai to agree on a way forward. We have a critical opportunity to catalyze global ambition and recognize that water is how climate change manifests itself. While wealthier, more resilient nations may be able to manage the devastating impacts of climate change, these same challenges are disastrous for lesser developed, more vulnerable communities.

Rainfall, the source of all freshwater, is becoming more erratic. Changes in precipitation, evaporation and soil moisture are creating severe food insecurity. Droughts trap farmers in poverty, as the majority of cultivated land is rain-fed. Extreme drought reduces growth in developing countries by about 0.85 percentage points. Melting glaciers, sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion jeopardize freshwater supplies. Floods destroy infrastructure, damage homes and disrupt livelihoods. The 2022 Pakistan floods affected 33 million people and more than 1,730 lost their lives, while 2023 saw devastating floods in Libya among other places.  

Now more than ever, it is urgent that we work together to make water the engine of climate action. Already, many countries are investing in technology and climate-resilient water infrastructure. Yet, we need more than technology and engineering to adapt to a changing climate. To advance global water action, we must radically change the way we understand, value and manage water with an emphasis on two necessary measures.

First, we need to make water availability central to our economic planning and decision-making. We need to rethink where and how we grow our food, where we build our cities, and where we plan our industries. We cannot continue to grow thirsty crops in drylands or drain wetlands and cut down forests to raise our cattle. In a changing climate, water availability needs to guide where we undertake economic activity.

In a changing climate, water availability needs to guide where we undertake economic activity.  

Second, we must restore and protect natural freshwater stocks, our buffers against extreme climate events. Natural freshwater storage is how we save water for dry periods and freshwater storage capacity is how we store rainwater to mitigate floods. 99 percent of freshwater storage is in nature. We need to halt the decline of groundwater, wetlands and floodplains. But our challenge is not only about surface and groundwater bodies, or blue water. We also need to preserve and restore our green water stocks, or the water that remains in the soil after rainfall. To reduce the decline of blue water and preserve green water, we need to implement water-friendly crop-management practices and incorporate key stakeholders, such as farmers, into the decision-making process.

Addressing the urgency of the global water crisis goes beyond the water sector. It requires transformative changes at every level of society. National climate plans such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans are key instruments to make water an organizing principle to spatial, economic and investment planning. Much like the Netherlands did earlier this year when the Dutch parliament adopted a policy that makes water and soil guiding principles in all our spatial planning decisions. Right now, about 90 percent of all countries’ NDCs prioritize action on water for adaptation. NDCs and National Adaptation Plans are drivers of integrated planning and have the potential to unlock vast investments, yet including targets for water is only a first step.

To drive global action, the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan co-hosted the United Nations 2023 Water Conference, bringing the world together for a bold Water Action Agenda to accelerate change across sectors and deliver on the water actions in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement. To elevate the agenda’s emphasis on accelerating implementation and improved impact, the Netherlands is contributing an additional €5 million to the NDC Partnership to support countries to mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduce water-related climate vulnerability and increase public and private investments targeting water-nexus opportunities. As a global coalition of over 200 countries and international institutions, the NDC Partnership is uniquely positioned to support countries to enhance the integration of water in formulating, updating, financing and implementing countries’ NDCs.

One example showcasing the importance of incorporating water management into national planning comes from former NDC Partnership co-chair and climate leader, Jamaica. Jamaica’s National Water Commission (NWC), one of the largest electricity consumers in the country, mobilized technical assistance to develop an integrated energy efficiency and renewables program to reduce its energy intensity, building up the resilience of the network, while helping reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. With additional support from the Netherlands, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), together with Global Water Partnership (GWP)-Caribbean, the government of Jamaica will ensure the National Water Commission is well equipped for the future. Implementation of climate commitments and the requisite financing to do so are key to ensuring targets like these are met.

Water has the power to connect. The Netherlands is reaching out to the world.

Water has the power to connect. The Netherlands is reaching out to the world. We are committed to providing political leadership and deploying our know-how for a more water-secure world. As we look towards the outcomes of the Global Stocktake and COP28, it is essential that we make water the engine of climate action. 



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Large Herbivores Can Help Prevent Massive Wildfires

In 2019 and 2020, a megafire scorched eastern Australia, destroying some 24 million hectares of land, and adding to the hole in the ozone layer. Another massive fire ate away parts of Northern California in 2018, and slowly animals are starting to return. Over the years fires have scorched parts of Africa, including a 15,000-hectare disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While the frequency, intensity and severity of large-scale wildfires might be a consequence of climate change, there is another cause receiving little attention: the decline of large herbivore populations. Large herbivores regulate nature’s fire systems by eating plant matter that fuels wildfires and turning over soil and vegetation litter as a result of their rummaging behavior. But, large herbivores are in trouble. About 60 percent of species of the world’s largest terrestrial herbivores are at risk of vanishing, for two key reasons: one, because of extensive overhunting, to feed rising populations across the developing world, and two, as part of encroachment by livestock, deforestation and expanding cultivation in the developed world.

Ecosystem engineering to reintroduce large herbivores into fire-prone regions in Australia has shown some promise, yet conservationists and media outlets often portray these animals as helpless victims. As a relatively inexpensive part of any fire prevention strategy, we must prioritize the reintroduction of either wild or domestic large herbivores into fire-prone areas to help prevent these disasters.

Wildfire is not always the enemy. Low-intensity fire destroys invasive species, for example, that have not adapted. But the consequences of megafires, continuous fires that cover more than 10,000 hectares, or the equivalent of approximately 14,000 soccer fields, are uniquely devastating. Large fires, and the smoke they create, have caused the deaths of more than 30,000 people annually in 43 countries. In 2022, wildfires in the U.S. caused an estimated $18.09 billion in property damage. In addition, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center says federal fire suppression costs have skyrocketed from $240 million in 1985 to about $3.5 billion in 2022.

Megafires are part of the blowback from the loss of biodiversity. Large herbivores like the American bison and the white rhinoceros traditionally clipped grass and ate shrubs, reducing available wildfire fuel. Their feeding habits changed the composition of vegetation over vast areas, creating diverse habitats. These habitats differed in their vulnerability to wildfires, producing a vast mosaic of natural firebreaks, which experts say affected the regularity, speed and strength of wildfires. In addition, reduced leaf matter leads to decreased flame height and rate of fire spread.

Wild herbivores also help reduce the spread of wildfires in other ways. For instance, animal trails have been proven to limit the spread of low-intensity wildfires by creating firebreaks. Large herbivores such as Cape buffalo and red deer make temporary pools by creating wallows, which also interrupt wildfires. On the southern Russian steppes, livestock populations that have declined since the fall of the Soviet Union led to an increase in fuel for wildfires; there was a rapid increase in the area burned by wildfire.

This is not just a modern phenomenon. Archeological evidence indicates that the extinction of species like mammoths, giant kangaroos and other megafauna as a result of human expansion more than 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, led to an increase in wildfires.

In the present, places like California and southern Australia have felt the brunt of these infernos almost every summer. These are areas where mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers prevail, and, unsurprisingly, these areas have had major declines in large herbivores. Among the 29 Australian terrestrial mammals that have become extinct over the past two centuries were several ecosystem engineers whose burrowing activities increased the speed of leafy debris’ decomposition.

In 2022, California’s black-tail deer and mule deer populations was estimated to be around 475,000 according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a sharp reduction from about two million back in 1960. This decline has contributed significantly to an accumulation of flammable vegetation since one deer can consume about seven pounds of vegetation per day, about 2,555 pounds annually.

Rewilding large wild and domestic herbivores for wildfire prevention has worked before. Researchers in Australia reintroduced “ecosystem engineers” including species of rat and wallaby, to areas from which they had disappeared. Leaf litter was significantly lower, and fire behavior modeling illustrated these animals had substantial impacts on flame height and speed. Livestock grazing has also reduced fire frequency in Southern Arizona. Another example is the reintroduction of giant tortoises to Española Island in the Galápagos, which has regulated shrubbery and created mosaics of vegetation, mitigating the spread of wildfires.

Every ecosystem will need a specific plan. For example, to address the fire risk on abandoned farmland, a specific kind of livestock would have to perform extensive or targeted intensive grazing, which is the use of domesticated large herbivores for a predetermined duration and intensity.

According to experts, the most effective strategy generally is to combine both grazing and browsing herbivores in sufficient numbers with browsers feeding primarily on leaves, soft shoots or fruits of woody plants like shrubs, while grazers eat grass and other herbaceous plants. Additionally, herbivore food preferences need to match the local vegetation. For example, certain types of goats have been found to have more of an impact in reducing fuel biomass than cows because the former feeds on more diverse vegetation types than the latter.

Cows would be more useful in predominantly grassy environments as their diet is fairly restricted to grasses, while some larger breeds of goats have a wider variety of vegetation in their diets including branches, young trees or tree bark that other herbivore species find inedible. Herbivore reintroduction may also need to be combined with other strategies like mechanical clearing to reduce wildfire damage.

Ignoring the benefits of reintroducing large herbivores into fire-prone regions will risk the lives of people who live in these areas, could ruin national economies, and will threaten biodiversity and vital habitats. Megafires also release large amounts of stored carbon, worsening climate change. This summer has witnessed megafires in Hawaii, Canada, Algeria and Greece. But equally worrying is that large wildfires are occurring where they previously did not.

Successful land-management strategies must be all-inclusive and involve a variety of groups and individuals who have a vested interest in reducing fire risk. This includes ranchers, NGOs, fisher-folk, hunters, Indigenous peoples, landowners and recreationists. Funding for rewilding projects can help turn the tide against the global decline and disappearance of these large and environmentally influential plant consumers. Such efforts can also boost economic activities like biodiversity conservation and ecotourism.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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‘Every tenth of a degree matters’: UN climate report is a call for action, not despair

The latest report by the UN’s climate advisory panel has once again highlighted the need for urgent action against human-induced climate change, noting that the tools to prevent climate catastrophe already exist. While hopes of limiting global warming at 1.5C are rapidly fading, climate experts stress that “every additional tenth of a degree matters” to mitigate the already dire consequences of our planet warming. 

The 36-page “summary for policymakers”, a synthesis of nine years of research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is a stark reminder that the devastating impacts of climate change are hitting faster than expected – and that failure to take decisive action could make some of those consequences irreversible. 

“Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday as he presented the report’s key findings. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.” 

The IPCC report says our planet is on course to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – considered a safer limit to global warming – in little over a decade. Its dire warning comes just eight years after the COP21 climate summit in Paris made the 1.5C threshold a beacon for climate policies. 

“Since the Paris Accord, the stated objective of states has been to keep global warming well below 2C above pre-industrial levels – and to step up efforts to limit it to 1.5C,” says Wolfgang Cramer, a research director at the Mediterranean Institute of Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE).  

“This overall objective provided a horizon and a specific target for climate policies,” adds Cramer, who co-authored the IPCC’s last major report in 2022. “But when you look at the current trajectories and the poor efforts mustered by governments, it does indeed appear highly unlikely that we can meet that second target.” 

The figures speak for themselves. The IPCC says greenhouse gas emissions would need to be slashed by 45% by 2030 for there to be any chance of capping global warming at 1.5C. That would mean annual cuts equivalent to the one witnessed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when the world’s economies ground to a halt. 

As things stand, humanity is well off the mark. According to the IPCC’s projections, our planet is on course for global heating of 2.5C by the end of the century if governments stick to their emissions pledges – and 2.8C if they stick to current policy. 

The planet’s ‘fever’ 

While the outlook is dire, it should not be cause for fatalism and inaction, experts caution.  

“Our actions right now will determine the extent of global warming in the long run. The objective is to ensure it remains as low as possible,” says Cramer, for whom the 1.5C target “is already too high” to avert major consequences for the planet. 

“We’re currently at 1.2C and already we are bearing the consequences, with an increase in heatwaves, droughts and flooding,” he explains. 


SCIENCE © FRANCE 24

 

To understand the significance of each fraction of a degree, Cramer draws a parallel with a human suffering from fever. Add one degree Celsius to the normal body temperature of 37C and the person will feel unwell and have headache. Add 2C and the suffering increases. At 3C it becomes dangerous, particularly if the person is vulnerable. 

The same goes for our planet, Cramer adds.  

“The consequences will differ at each degree and in different parts of the world: they will be most severe in places that are most vulnerable,” he says. “1.5C will always be better than 1.6C, which will always be preferable to 1.7C. Every tenth of a degree matters.” 

Biodiversity under threat 

The consequences of this global “fever” are increasingly evident, starting with the extinction of biodiversity.  

In 2015, the year of the Paris Accord, the Bramble Cay Melomy, a small rodent that lived on a speck of land off the coast of Papua New Guinea, became the first known mammal to go extinct as a result of human-caused climate change. 

“Scientists have shown that its disappearance was caused by rising sea levels submerging its habitat,” Camille Parmesan, a climate and biodiversity expert at the CNRS research centre, told FRANCE 24 in an interview in December. 

“We have also documented the disappearance of 92 species of amphibians, killed because of the proliferation of a fungus that developed as a result of climate change modifying ecosystems,” Parmesan added.  

>> ‘Humanity is bullying nature – and we will pay the price,’ WWF chief tells FRANCE 24

Corals are another obvious casualty. At 1.5°C, 70% to 90% of reefs could disappear. At 2°C, the figure rises to 99%. 

Experts at the UN-backed biodiversity agency IPBES say more than a million species are currently threatened with extinction, with climate change becoming the “most significant” menace. “The more it increases, the more ecosystems are disrupted, with consequences for wildlife,” an agency report stated in 2021. 

Extreme weather 

“Each additional degree will translate into increasingly frequent and severe weather events, with ever greater consequences for the 3.3 billion people who live in vulnerable areas,” adds Cramer. 

For several years now, scientists have been investigating links between climate change and extreme weather events, a field known as “attribution science”. Their findings confirm that heatwaves, floods and hurricanes are increasing in intensity, magnitude and frequency as a result of global warming. Research has thus established that climate change made the devastating heatwave that hit India and Pakistan in March and April last year thirty times more likely. 

In this context, “decision makers should also focus their efforts on slowing down global warming” – in addition to curbing it, says glaciologist Gerhard Krinner, one of the authors of the latest IPCC report.  

“The faster climate change takes place the less time people will have to adapt,” he explains. “This in turn will increase the risk of severe shortages, famines and conflicts.” 

Tipping points 

Both experts flag the danger of reaching “tipping points” that would be extremely difficult to reverse, such as a destabilisation of the Antarctic ice cap.  

While the likelihood of catastrophic ice-sheet melting is currently still low, “it increases as the planet warms and there is a real risk of the rise in sea levels accelerating dramatically at between 1.5C and 2C”, Cramer warns.   

Should the Antarctic’s permafrost come to melt, it would release vast amounts of greenhouse gases trapped under the ice, in turn further warming the planet and accelerating ice melt. Other examples of tipping points include the Amazon rainforest turning to savannah and Greenland’s ice cap melting. 

Each of these scenarios can be avoided, the experts insist, provided there is a political will to do so. 

“We now have multiple solutions that are readily available to slow down and limit climate change,” says Cramer, for whom “the obstacle is no longer innovation – but politics”.  

“Today’s efforts will make all the difference in the long term,” adds Krinner. “We can still spare ourselves those extra tenths of a degree.” 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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We Must Stop Treating Grasslands as Wastelands

As a research scholar at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research, I once monitored birds that inhabited tall wet grasslands in Daying Ering Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area in Northeast India. This habitat forms a part of one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Yet despite their ecological importance and uniqueness, most grasslands are classified by the Indian government as “wastelands.” I wondered why this was, as I stood on the deck of a governmental outpost, watching a critically endangered Bengal florican—a bird native to South Asian grasslands—perform its mating display of short jumps with its thick neck pouch extended.

Ecosystems throughout the world are reeling from the effects of unchecked habitat loss and climate change. While all types of ecosystems—forests, grasslands, oceans, wetlands and deserts—feel these effects, there is evidence of bias towards the research and conservation of forest biodiversity. These landscapes have been prized for their economic value since the colonial era. However, this bias hurts the preservation of other ecosystems, including the grasslands that make up 24 percent of the Indian landmass. These grasslands harbor immense biodiversity and support the livelihoods of millions of people, yet are defined in India by their value in being converted into forests for climate mitigation. It is time for India, and other countries with grasslands, to hold the ecological and social value of these ecosystems above their economic value. Trees can only do so much to save us and our climate, and the biodiversity within the tall grasses and wide plains of this planet deserve our attention and protection. 

To understand how grasslands became “wastelands,” we need to understand how British colonists valued the high-quality timber of India’s forests. They harvested trees for construction, laying railway lines in India, and shipbuilding, all of which supported Britain’s economic expansion and war efforts. The British also undertook plantation operations to maintain the supply of timber. This led to the formation of the Imperial Forest Service, whose main mandate was to aid in British silviculture. At the same time, the British government created the baze zamin daftar (wasteland department) to map and control areas, like grasslands, that they deemed economically useless.

The forest service also called grasslands “degraded forest,” because they believed these more open swaths of land could have held forests but for what they called the “destructive” practices of the Indigenous and pastoral communities living there. Both these designations ultimately motivated the conversion (or “restoration”) of grassland habitats into forested landscapes, as we show in a recently published paper that critically analyzes grassland conservation policies in India. This also ushered in the displacement of Indigenous and pastoral communities that depended on grasslands for livelihood. Colonial authorities criminalized (through regressive acts like the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871) communities and unjustly denied them any control over these “wastelands.” The colonial government was particularly wary of pastoral or “wandering” communities and invoked the Criminal Tribes Act to penalize them for activities that included grazing of livestock—an important mechanism to maintain grassland habitats. As Atul Joshi and colleagues report in their paper on the colonial impact of forestry on the high-altitude shola grasslands, colonial officers also began converting such grasslands into fuelwood plantations of Acacia and Eucalyptus to supply to settlers, while prohibiting Indigenous communities from using them for firewood.

As forests are ecologically complex, so are grasslands. They range from the dry and semiarid grasslands of Central and Western India, to wet grasslands on riverbanks of the Himalayas, to high-altitude grasslands in the Western Ghats and cold desert grasslands in North India. These lands also have deep cultural significance based on their role in pastoralism or fire practices. Yet, the historical framing of grasslands—and indeed other non-forested ecosystems—as “wastelands” continues to hamper preservation efforts.

Whereas colonial officers had economic motivations for converting grasslands, today governments worldwide are banking on forests and foresting to mitigate climate change. To this end, there are global efforts to map potential areas for afforestation initiatives, but these efforts often identify grassland ecosystems as good candidates for afforestation, threatening more than one million square kilometers of grasslands in Africa, for example. In India, we find something similar: large areas of grasslands earmarked for large-scale afforestation activities.

Yet, grasslands could be equally good—if not better—at storing carbon. Apart from being costly and flawed, a carbon sequestration-based strategy also neglects the ecological and social value of grasslands by converting them to monoculture forests, which do not provide the same ecological benefits.

India and other countries with substantial grasslands need to recognize, support and prioritize evidence-based scientific endeavors that focus on grasslands by establishing long-term monitoring plots and grassland-specific restoration efforts, as well as by mapping their extent and the ecosystem services they provide to humans. In an era where environmental justice is at the forefront of conservation discourse, the time is ripe for  abandoning colonial labelings like “wasteland” that have led to violence against people of marginalized caste and class. 

Already, communities like the Todas, the Phasepardhis, and the Idu Mishmi people are protecting grasslands in India through collective action and local stewardship. These roles are also helping them reclaim their dignity and connection with the land. In the spirit of righting wrongs, and with the aim of preserving the richness of nature, governments must restore greater agency and rights to Indigenous, pastoral and marginalized communities to manage grasslands and include their knowledge in grassland restoration. Grasslands are an important feature of an ecologically sound India, one that must be preserved for that value above all others.        

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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How rivers are vital for everything from biodiversity to mental health

The river Dee flows through England and Wales

Henry Ciechanowicz/Alamy

This article is part of New Scientist and the i’s joint campaign, Save Britain’s RiversThe year-long collaboration will reveal what’s happening to the UK’s rivers and how to restore them through a series of special articles, films, podcasts and events.

STAND by a river in the UK and you are in touch with the ancients. Their short, gruff names – Thames, Leith, Taff, Lagan – speak volumes of the history of the islands, from ancient Britons through Romans, Saxons and Vikings. These rivers are part of the past and present. Yet they face an uncertain future.

All over the world, rivers are valuable, often sacred, cultural and practical assets. They are a defining feature of human settlements, exploited for millennia as a source of drinking water, food, irrigation, waste disposal, power, navigation, defence and even inspiration.

In the UK, many of these services are just as relevant today. Tap water comes mostly from rivers. Sewage is disposed into them – preferably treated but often not. Rivers irrigate crops, power homes, take away floodwaters and float boats. Millions of people spend some of their leisure time messing about on, or near, rivers.

Save Britain's rivers

The UK is a riverine country. Globally, about 0.8 per cent of the land is covered in freshwater. In the UK, that number is 3 per cent. It has about 1500 river systems, with a combined length of over 200,000 kilometres, ranging from gushing upland headwaters to languid floodplain meanderers, via a vast range of intermediate habitats.

By global standards, these rivers are short, narrow and shallow – “mere streams”, according to the National River Flow Archive at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford. Yet they are extremely diverse in character. According to a recent report by the National Committee UK of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “rivers and their floodplains are among the most important environments in the UK”.

“It’s well known that rivers and their floodplains – and the two go hand in hand – support a disproportionate level of biodiversity relative to their size within landscapes,” says report co-author Stephen Addy at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, UK.

Drinking water and flood management

Although rivers are important for many reasons, their most obvious benefit in the UK is the water they supply. According to Water UK, which represents the country’s water industry, about two-thirds of tap water in England and Wales comes from rivers and the reservoirs and lakes they flow into; the rest is taken from aquifers. Northern Ireland and Scotland rely almost exclusively on rivers, reservoirs and lakes. All told, 87 per cent of the UK water supply comes from these sources.

According to government statistics, water companies in the UK abstract about 4.6 cubic kilometres of river, lake and reservoir water in England for the public supply every year. People drink it, bathe in it, flush their toilets with it, irrigate their gardens with it and use it to wash their clothes, floors and cars. Offices, shops, restaurants and other firms drink deep of it too.

Water is abstracted for other purposes. Electricity generators take 3.4 cubic kilometres to turn their steam turbines, while fish and watercress farms use 0.8 cubic kilometres and agriculture and private water supplies another 0.8. That adds up to a grand total of 9.6 cubic kilometres, equivalent to a cubic tank of water more than 2 kilometres in all dimensions.

Even in a relatively rainy country like the UK, that is milking it. The UK government estimates that about 1 in 5 surface water sources are depleted by over-abstraction, which has knock-on effects on river health.

The opposite problem – too much water – is an increasingly familiar hazard during the winter. Flooding is a growing problem as climate change causes extreme weather events, including biblical downpours. According to the Environment Agency, the UK has had six of its 10 wettest years on record since 1998. Last year was the first to see three named Atlantic storms in the space of a week.

Natural floodplains can help to mitigate flood risk by corralling the excess water and releasing it slowly back into the river. That is especially true of riverine landscapes engineered by beavers, whose dams and pools massively slow the passage of water through the system. Where rain used to hit the ground and surge straight into the waterways, it now is trapped for weeks. Beavers are being reintroduced all over the UK after they gained legal protection last year.

2H2XMMC Plastic waste pollution, River Thames, East London, UK

Plastic waste dumped along the bank of the river Thames in London

Mark Phillips/Alamy

The problem is that many of those floodplains are far from natural, let alone beavered: housing estates and industrial development are often sited on them and these are generally quite useless at mitigating floods.

Water supplies and flood defences are two of many “ecosystem services” supplied by rivers. These are vital goods and services, such as water, pollination and clean air, that flow from nature, or what is increasingly referred to as natural capital.

Economic and health benefits

The UK was the first nation – and remains one of only 26 countries – to audit its natural capital. In 2012, the government established the (now disbanded) Natural Capital Committee (NCC) to advise it on the state of England’s natural capital, in order to help deliver its commitment “to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”. In 2020, the NCC published its first set of accounts.

These are by no means complete, as the system for totting up natural capital, called experimental ecosystem accounting, remains a work in progress and nature is complex. But they still speak volumes about the value of rivers.

Water abstraction alone is worth £6.8 billion a year – essentially what it would cost to keep the taps on if rivers didn’t supply the UK with water – and the asset is worth £134 billion (the NCC stressed that these aren’t price tags on nature: given that the natural world supports all life on Earth, its value is infinite). Wetlands sequester 3.5 million tonnes of carbon a year, worth £831 million; that asset is valued at nearly £30 billion. Hydroelectricity generation produces 6865 gigawatt-hours a year, worth £136 million; the value of that asset is £2.2 billion.

These “provisioning and regulating” services are supplemented by some less tangible, but no less valuable cultural services. Around 1 in 10 of the UK’s 5.8 billion annual outdoor recreational and tourist visits are centred on freshwater, worth £681 million; the asset is worth £32 billion. Recreational fishing is a £1.7 billion a year industry. Around 2.7 million people gain health benefits from being in or around freshwater, worth £870 million a year. The asset value of this is nearly £48 billion. Even house prices benefit from the proximity of a river to the tune of £2.9 billion a year.

Essential habitats for biodiversity

One asset that has yet to be incorporated into natural capital accounting is biodiversity, but it is clear that rivers are an important repository of what is left in the UK. Globally, rivers and other bodies of fresh water are disproportionately biodiverse. Despite covering less than 1 per cent of Earth’s surface, they are home to around a third of described species of vertebrate, including approximately 40 per cent of all fish.

The UK’s rivers and the wetlands they feed are disproportionately biodiverse too, though to a lesser extent. They are home to around 10 per cent of the UK’s species, according to the Environment Agency. The IUCN lists 346 river-dependent species, some endangered, including eels, otters, the bar-tailed godwit and feather mosses. The Environment Agency says that over 10 per cent of UK freshwater and wetland species are threatened with extinction.

Rivers are biodiverse in part because they themselves are diverse. A short stretch of lowland river can feature 10 different habitats – pools, riffles (shallow water flowing quickly over stones), glides (deeper, slow-flowing water), backwaters, beds of aquatic vegetation, submerged tree roots, exposed sediment, riverbanks, riparian vegetation and floodplains – all of which provide food and shelter for a different repertoire of species. Further upstream are headwaters, waterfalls and rapids, which also host specialist species such as the freshwater pearl mussel, white-clawed crayfish, brook lamprey and bullhead, as well as juvenile salmon, trout and grey mullet. These juvenile fish will eventually migrate out to sea and become part of the UK fishing industry’s £713 million annual earnings.

Rare chalk streams and poor ecological health

England is also home to the vast majority of the world’s chalk streams, rare and internationally important habitats fed from alkaline aquifers in chalk and characterised by their gravel and flint beds and crystal clear water. They are home to unique ecosystems and have been described as an English Great Barrier Reef. There are only 210 of these waterways in the world and 170 of them are in England (the rest are in northern France).

Unsurprisingly, the value of ecosystem services is strongly related to the ecological state of the asset. In much of the UK, that isn’t a happy tale. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have no rivers considered to be in high ecological health, according to criteria laid down in the four nations’ Water Framework Directives; only 14 per cent are good. The rest are moderate, poor or bad. None is in a good state in terms of chemical pollution and none is in good overall health. In Scotland, 8 per cent of rivers are in high ecological health.

The IUCN report is blunt on this issue, concluding that “truly natural [river] environments that have escaped both direct and indirect human alteration no longer exist”. However, there is hope, according to Addy. “There are some grounds for being optimistic. River restoration in the UK is undergoing a step change, there are more and more projects going on everywhere.”

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Volunteers plant mini-forests in Paris to slow climate change, tackle heatwaves

French volunteers are using a pioneering Japanese tree-planting method to create pocket forests in Paris in the hope they will slow climate change, create biodiversity hotspots and tackle the growing number of heatwaves in the capital.

On a damp Saturday afternoon in a southern suburb of Paris, a young boy of 9 wields a spade to plant a sapling on an abandoned strip of land.

He isn’t that much taller than the young tree he is planting. The afternoon rain has churned the ground beneath him into mud. He casts his spade aside and clears the clay earth with his hands.

Along with his proud grandmother, and his fellow volunteers, he’s immersed in planting a mini-forest, also known as a pocket forest, besides a busy motorway in the neighbourhood of Chevilly-Larue, 9.3 kilometres south of central Paris.

French non-profit Boomforest has organised a tree-planting initiative, drawing a dozen volunteers of all ages, clad in beanies and boots as they brave the cold and rain.

Grazia Valla, 79, a former journalist, said she “jumped at the chance to do something concrete” about climate change and show her grandson how to plant trees.

“He loves going to the community vegetable garden,” she said, casting an affectionate look in his direction. “Whenever I look after him, he’s always clamouring to go there.”

“Not every child has the chance to see how vegetables grow and taste them,” she said, applauding the initiative. “We are very interested in everything to do with nature.”

Maxim Timothée, 31, was happy to be outdoors and was motivated by the simple, symbolic act of planting a tree.

“It does feel really special to plant a tree,” he said, taking a brief pause from cutting into the damp clay. “It’s not just an object. I feel connected to the life of this tree. I want to protect it. I planted it.”

Pocket forests are popping up all over France in the hope they will tackle climate change and create biodiversity hotspots. © Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Despite the drab weather, Timothée said it felt good to be taking action, rather than just sitting at home ruminating on the problems of climate change and the sharp decline in biodiversity.

The Miyawaki method

Mini-forests were first developed in the 1970s by the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who studied the relics of centuries-old forests growing around sacred temples and shrines.

Miyawaki found they were not only thriving without human intervention – they were richer and more resilient than more recently planted forests.

In his study of ancient primary forests, Miyawaki claimed that densely planted indigenous species, grown in carefully prepared soil at four different heights to provide multiple layers of coverage, grew up to 10 times faster and captured more carbon than standard managed forests.

Miyawaki went on to monitor the planting of more than 1,500 forests worldwide, claiming that a forest as small as 100 square metres could be home to exceptional levels of biodiversity.

Advocates of Miyawaki forests have adapted his methods and transported them around the world as cities look to curb the effects of climate change, restore degraded land, create biodiversity hotspots and sequester greater amounts of carbon.

Forests the size of tennis courts have been planted in Beirut, in cities in Asia, all over India, and increasingly through Europe.

Paris planted its first mini-forest on the northern edge of the city ringroad at the Porte de Montreuil in March 2018 with Boomforest’s grant from the French capital’s participatory budget. 

“Ninety-five percent of the trees planted there have survived,” says Guillaume Dozier, 33, a regular Boomforest volunteer, as he carried compost in a wheelbarrow to mulch the soil around the newly planted saplings.

Saplings are planted closely together in keeping with the tree-planting method pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. Volunteers with the French non-profit Boomforest plant a mini-forest by a motorway in Chevilly Larue.
Saplings are planted closely together in keeping with the tree-planting method pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. Volunteers with the French non-profit Boomforest plant a mini-forest by a motorway in Chevilly Larue. © Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

“The trees have now grown to a height of nearly four to five metres,” he reports with delight, adding that biodiversity in the mini-forest is now thriving.

“Every time we go there we notice more and more insects and birds that weren’t there before,” Dozier says, explaining that they were setting up a programme to monitor the species gathering there.

Motorways are “an extremely hostile environment” for birds and insects, says Dozier over the roar of traffic, explaining that Val de Marne authorities had given them the land by the side of the road to plant the new forest.

By recreating the same richness and density of a wild forest, the new trees will provide shelter for hundreds of small mammals, insects and birds, Dozier continues.

Unlike artificial forests planted for timber production, where the trees are laid out in neat lines and planted 10 metres apart, trees in Miyawaki forests are planted closely together.

As many as three trees per square metre were being planted at random by the side of the motorway, with the slender young saplings clustered closely together.  

Planting a single tree has been shown to have the same cooling effect as 10 air conditioners. But trees are social and fare much better when planted in the company of fellow trees, explains Dozier.

“They’ll give each other shade, and they’ll be able to exchange water, nutrients and information. If one of them is under attack, they’ll be able to warn the others. For example, they’ll make their leaves bitter to make them less edible for the attacker,” he says. 

Volunteers on January 14, 2023 hope that the mini-forest will help slow the effects of climate change.
Volunteers on January 14, 2023 hope that the mini-forest will help slow the effects of climate change. © Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

 

All of the saplings are local French species. By local, the City of Paris defines French indigenous plants as those in the region before AD 1500, Hannah Lewis explains in her book, “Mini-Forest Revolution: Using the Miyawaki method to rewild the world”. But the Boomforest team carried out additional research to ensure their trees and shrubs were the most locally adapted species, and would cohabit well.

Oaks, ashes, beeches and willows are planted in the centre, while shrubs such as hazel, holly and charcoal are planted around the edges. Just 15 different species of plants were planted that weekend but as many as 31 local trees and shrubs have been planted at Boomforest’s other projects.

Pocket forests in Paris

Proponents of pocket forests also hope they can make a city as dense as Paris more habitable in the heat.

In the summer of 2022, Paris sweltered in three successive heatwaves over a total of 33 days, and temperatures in the French capital hit near-record highs of 40 degrees Celsius.

The lack of trees, and the shade and quiet they provide – Paris has about 9% tree coverage – was conspicuous as the city became a furnace.

Parisians wilted in the city’s paved streets as the asphalt, concrete and metal from buildings soaked up the baking heat and beamed it back out again.

Paris City Hall has vowed to plant 170,000 trees in the French capital by 2026. But their felling of 76 ancient plane trees in April last year, to make way for garden spaces, sparked the wrath of environmentalists including Aux Arbres Citoyens and the GNSA, groups that fight against tree felling.

Green activists also say that newly planted saplings are no competition for the cover provided by a decades-old tree, and that young trees are particularly vulnerable to drought.

Eliziame Siqueira said her concern about climate change had sparked her to take concrete action and join the tree-planting initiative on January 14, 2023.
Eliziame Siqueira said her concern about climate change had sparked her to take concrete action and join the tree-planting initiative on January 14, 2023. © Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Critics of Miyawaki-style forests add that mini-forests are expensive to plant and that the science behind planting them in Europe is not sufficiently robust. A 2010 study of a mini-forest in Sardinia, one of the rare studies on mini-forests in Europe, put the tree mortality rate after 12 years at between 61 and 84 percent.

Despite the Paris authorities’ seeming enthusiasm for planting trees, Dozier conceded it was hard to find space in the city centre for them.

“Paris is a bit of a museum,” he said wryly, adding that mini-forests have only been planted at the gates of the city, at La Porte Maillot and La Porte des Lilas.

He hopes one day they will have a chance to plant a mini-forest in the heart of Paris, adding that they were adapting their tree-planting methods and learning all the time. He also hopes that others will decide to plant their own pocket forests, and that those feeling anxious about climate change will be encouraged to take action. Downloadable step-by-step instructions for forest planting are outlined at J’agis je plante (I act, I plant), on the Boomforest website, and other mini-forest groups in France such as MiniBigForest and Toulouse in Transition.

By late afternoon, the rain had grown heavier. But the volunteers’ enthusiasm showed no sign of waning. Nearly half of the 250 square metres they wanted to reforest that weekend had been dug and laid with saplings. When Boomforest’s budget allows, they hope to return to plant more on the 800 square metres total they have been allocated.

Over the next few months, in the spring and then the autumn, Boomforest’s regular volunteers will return to the newly planted forest to remove any weeds that might compete with the young trees and monitor their progress.

In just three years, the new forest will be autonomous. In 10 years’ time Boomforest hopes it will have the appearance of a 100-year-old natural forest.  

Valla hopes that her grandson will return to the forest in the spring, and in many years to come.

“I hope he’ll come here to walk around and say, ‘Hey, I really did something here’.”

Volunteers braved the cold and rain to plant saplings on 250 square metres of land given to them by Val de Marne authorities, on January 14, 2023.
Volunteers braved the cold and rain to plant saplings on 250 square metres of land given to them by Val de Marne authorities, on January 14, 2023. © Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24



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Biodiversity: ‘A victim of global warming and one of the major tools to fight against it’

After the COP27 climate conference, representatives from around the world gathered in Montreal this week for the COP15 meeting dedicated to biodiversity. Scientists say leaders face a crucial challenge: agreeing on a common way forward to safeguard biodiversity by 2030 in order to preserve plant and animal life and help combat climate imbalance. 

Wildlife populations have fallen by 69 percent globally in the past 50 years, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in an October 2022 report. At the same time, land degradation – including deforestation, soil erosion and loss of natural areas – now affects up to 40 percent of the Earth’s land and half of humanity, according to the UN. These alarming figures are the backdrop for the COP15 conference on biodiversity that began on December 7 in Montreal with an ambitious objective: to agree a new global framework for safeguarding the natural world. 

“The stakes are crucially high: we are currently living through a biodiversity crisis,” says Philippe Grandcolas, entomologist and research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). “Biodiversity is essential to human survival. It ensures that we can feed ourselves, have access to drinking water, and it plays a major role in our health. But, above all, biodiversity plays an indispensable role in the stability of the planet.” 

At present, 70 percent of ecosystems around the world are in a state of degradation, largely due to human activity – a rate of decline described as “unprecedented and dangerous” by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

In addition, more than 1 million species are threatened with extinction. Vertebrates, which include mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians and make up five percent of all animal species, are especially under threat. “Our previous report found that there had been a 68 percent fall among the total [vertebrate] population [over 50 years],” says Pierre Cannet, director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF France. In 2022 that figure has risen to 69 percent. “Losing one percent in two years is massive. For species that already have small populations, it could mean extinction.”

Climate imbalance: A growing threat 

According to the IPBES, the most significant driving factor of the ”biodiversity crisis” is change in how land is used and fragmentation of natural space, most often due to agriculture. This is followed by overfishing, hunting and poaching. There is a tie for third place between climate imbalance, pollution and invasive species. 

“In the majority of cases there are multiple factors at play,” says Grandcolas. “But climate imbalance is becoming the most significant threat. The more it escalates, the more it disturbs ecosystems and has an impact on flora and fauna.” 

There are plenty of examples of this impact. In the past 30 years elephant populations in African forests have fallen by 86 percent. The main causes are poaching and black market trade, causing the death of 20,000 to 30,000 elephants per year, according to the WWF. But repeated cycles of drought and flood are also having an impact on access to fresh water – a vital resource for the species as each animal consumes around 150 to 200 litres per day. Without it their survival is at risk. 

Similarly, leatherback sea turtles in Suriname have seen their populations fall by 95 percent in 20 years. This is due in part to destruction of their habitat caused by human intervention and illegal fishing. But climate instability is also disrupting their reproduction rates as sea level rise has destroyed and disrupted turtle nesting beaches. 

A leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) digging a nest on the beach in Trinidad. © Konrad Wothe, WWF

Mass deaths 

“Currently there are a few species that are classed having climate change as the reason for their extinction,” says Camille Parmesan, research director at CNRS and author of the first report of its kind on the links between climate change and biodiversity, produced by IPBES and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2021. Yet this is the reason for the demise of the Bramble Cay melomys: “a species of little rodent that lived on the small islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Scientists proved that their disappearance was due to their habitat being submerged [by the sea],” Parmesan says.

“We have also noted the disappearance of 92 amphibian species, killed by the growth of a type of fungus. We have proof that it developed due to climate instability which modified ecosystems and created the right conditions for it to thrive.” 

The number of species that are officially classed as having died out due to climate instability may be low, but increasing extreme weather events are causing mass deaths among mammals, birds, fish and trees. “In Australia, we counted 45,000 flying fox deaths [a type of bat] in a single day during a heatwave”, Parmesan says. In France, record summer heat in 2022 caused temperatures in the Mediterranean Sea to rise to levels that killed thousands of fish and shellfish. 

>> Biodiversity: Ocean ‘dead zones’ are proliferating due to global warming

Yet, disappearing species is not the only consequence of climate change. “We can also add behaviour changes, notably migrations induced by climate modifications,” Parmesan adds. “Certain species try to move to [new] habitats that are more favourable but this can cause even more disruption in ecosystems.” 

Biodiverse carbon storage 

Shrinking biodiversity also has multiple consequences on human life. In some parts of the world it can disrupt economies reliant on fishing or hunting and negatively impact the tourism industry. 

“It’s a vicious circle. Biodiversity is a victim of global warming, but it is also one of the major tools to fight against it”, says Sébastien Barot, researcher at French public research institution Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD).  

From plant life to animal species, individual elements of the natural world all contribute to regulating and supporting the environment as a whole. Bardot says, “water and earth play a role in filtering pollution, and bumblebees are essential for plant reproduction”.

But when one element is compromised the rest can suffer too. “The survival of the planet depends on a fine balance,” says Grandcolas. “Imagine a group of frogs suddenly die in a habitat. As insignificant as that may seem, it will have an impact: by disappearing they modify the conditions of the environment. This could allow other species to develop, damage plant life and lead to progressive destruction of the ecosystem, which will then no longer be able to play its role as a climate regulator.” 

Nowhere is this more evident that with carbon storage. Scientists estimate that the earth and sea currently absorb almost 50 percent of C02 created by human activity.  “Forests, wetlands, mangrove swamps and even deep water are real C02 sinks. When they disappear, emissions are released into the atmosphere,” Barot says.  

Consequently, “when we see a forest burn, we are watching a carbon sink disappear”, says Grandcolas. In this way, “[the presence of] plant life has an obvious impact on the climate.” 

Two crises, one solution? 

Experts agree on the need to tackle both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis at the same time. “We tend to treat them as separate entities, but they go hand in hand,” says Grandcolas. “They should be seen as a joint struggle with equal importance. For this to happen, we need to give nature the space it deserves.” 

Scientists and the WWF have called for more nature-based solutions for both issues. One of the most prominent is increasing protected habitats, which currently make up 17 percent of land and eight percent of ocean globally. “We need to increase that to 30-50 percent of the planet,” says Grandcolas. A significant step towards this goal, he adds, would be better global policies for fighting deforestation as preserving forests has the potential to both protect biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“There are also many things to consider in terms of agriculture,” says Barot. “We need agriculture systems that are more durable such as developing agroecology and agroforestry. We can improve how cultivated land is managed and limit use of fertilizer … which would help both biodiversity and the climate.”

“Protection alone is no longer enough; 70 percent of land is now in a degraded state,” Parmesan adds. “It is essential to put stronger policies in place for restoring ecosystems. That would enable us to recreate habitats for animals and plants, and the climate benefits would follow.” For this to be successful a holistic approach is needed. “There’s no point planting trees purely to compensate for carbon emissions,” Parmesan says. “It needs to be done with respect for balance in the ecosystem. Big plantations filled with monocultures are not good for biodiversity or for the climate because they are more vulnerable to climate risks.” 

The three scientists estimate that nature-based solutions could provide around a third of necessary climate mitigation measures even if other steps, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, must come from changes in human behaviour. 

Many such solutions are up for discussion at the COP15 biodiversity conference. Even so, other issues – namely money – may dominate. Supported by 22 other countries, Brazil has requested that rich nations provide “at least $100 billion per year until 2030” to developing countries in order to finance nature protection initiatives. The request is yet to receive a response.  

This article was adapted from the original in French

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