Planting Trees for the SDGs: Why We Need Investment Into Reforestation and Watershed Protection

Photo: Forest Woodward

This week’s story highlights the often-overlooked role of watershed protection and reforestation in ensuring access to clean water for all. 

By Rob Bell & Jenna Saldaña

Sustainable development goal (SDG) 6 sets out an ambitious goal for the international community: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. The goal rightly acknowledges that access to safe water and sanitation is impossible without sound water management. Target #6 of SDG 6 therefore sets out an even more ambitious objective: by 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes. Target #6B also calls for supporting and strengthening the participation of local communities in water and sanitation management.

All of this by 2020? That’s only two years away. And not nearly as many people are working on watersheds as water and sanitation infrastructure. While infrastructure is crucial, we argue that watershed protection and reforestation are necessary but overlooked pre-conditions for achieving clean water for all.

Trees play a bigger role than previously known: not only are they important for aquifer recharge but also for community health. A recent study involving more than 300,000 children in 35 countries conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont found that children living near watersheds with greater tree coverage are less likely to experience diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.

In the developed world, I’ve seen important watersheds protected. Universities, government agencies, and other large groups are addressing the need for watershed protection and reforestation in developed countries. In the developing world, the focus has been on water infrastructure—and sanitation infrastructure to a lesser degree. This must shift to include watershed protection and restoration as a priority: reforesting, terracing, improving farming habits, training residents on the economic benefits of watershed restoration, and more.

Degraded watershed

Healthy watershed

Why the shift to this broader focus?

Because wells and springs dry up, especially in places where deforestation is heavy. Nicaragua, for example, has lost over 50% of its forest cover in the last 50 years, and a 75% loss is predicted by 2030. El Porvenir works in multiple 600+ acre watersheds, looking at the full scope of water and sanitation delivery and sustainability.

Micro-watershed restoration success

José lives in a humble house made of wood boards in central Nicaragua. He loves nature. When Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, a mudslide destroyed his property, leaving it without trees. The natural spring that gave them drinking water and watered crops, started providing less and less water. Then it dried up completely.

José is optimistic. He didn’t sit there looking at the destruction. He started again. He wanted to feel the coolness of the shade and see water run on his property again.

When El Porvenir began doing reforestation work in this area in 2000, José was one of the first to join in, seeing hope in starting a tree nursery. He planted trees along his fence line, making a living fence. He kept going, reforesting his property, especially where the spring had been. He has planted approximately 1,000 trees on his land.

Now, his beautiful countryside is back: full of hardwood and fruit trees that provide such shade that it feels cool even on a day over 90 degrees. José now knows how to care for the environment and has his own tree nursery: “I have recovered my spring. For a time, I thought it wasn’t possible and that I wouldn’t get my beautiful land back with the coolness nature gives us. I spent a lot of time working on my farm, reforesting the high area, building terraces, planting living fences, and putting in dikes. I gave life back to my farm.”

We must reverse the effects of deforestation with the help of people like José or the boreholes and piped water systems will run dry. Watershed restoration re-introduces biodiversity to stripped watersheds, restores year-round water flow to streams, preserves topsoil crucial to agricultural production, and reforests areas with native species to restore ecosystems, support food security and economic vitality, and promote aquifer recharge. Restoring these watersheds not only improves water access for residents of the watershed but also for all who live downstream.

What can you do?

Are you a WASH org? Plant trees. Start now.

Do you fund WASH? If you haven’t already, broaden your funding guidelines to include watershed restoration.

Rob Bell is Executive Director of El Porvenir, based in Nicaragua, Jenna Saldaña is Director of U.S. operations based at El Porvenir’s Colorado office. For more information about their work, visit their website or tweet at @elporvenir