Watershed - Why We Need A New Approach Toward Planet Earth's Liquid Assets

Tony writes and introduction to The Prince of Wales's video message that he gave to The Economist World Water Summit.

For many people, and especially those living in the developed countries, the freshwater that flows from our taps could hardly be taken more for granted. So accustomed have we become to safe and reliable supply that we rarely ponder what makes this basic essential of modern life possible.

In his video address to The Economist World Water Summit taking place in London this week, HRH The Prince of Wales considers some of the complexities and challenges that lie behind future water security. In addition to pointing out how because of a range of converging pressures the days of taking water for granted are coming to an end, he suggests that solutions rest not only on engineering, diplomacy and sound planning, but also on pillars of healthy nature.

Water companies and utilities of course play vital roles in sustaining supply, but they in turn are dependent on range of natural systems that include soils, wetlands, rainforests and rivers. Even the numberless trillions of plankton that drift at the surface of the oceans play a vital role, helping to 'seed' the clouds that in turn form the 'sky rivers' that move freshwater around the planet.

This is why any rational approach toward sustaining water supplies must be based on sustaining nature. Water companies and utilities must of course use engineering to manage, clean and store water, but when natural systems become degraded the tendency is for water security to diminish and costs to go up.

As well as working in partnership with Nature in meeting our developmental needs, The Prince of Wales highlights in his video address another theme that it is essential we embrace in protecting future water security. This is in relation to the importance of integrated approaches and joined-up solutions. This is because maintaining future water supplies is bound up with a wide range of other challenges, including climate change, energy security, food production, continuing population growth, urbanization and rising living standards.

None of these questions can be completely separated from one another, and water is at the heart of all of them. The seemingly insoluble conundrum that arises from this wider perspective is, however, far from hopeless. Right across the world there are positive examples of how people can work with nature to address these multiple related challenges.

From the UK to India, the United States to Kenya and many places in between, there are practical initiatives that show how it is possible to join the dots between these multiple related questions, including through solutions that work with the grain of nature. In taking more thoughtful approaches contributions can simultaneously be made toward reducing climate-changing emissions, building resilience to extreme weather and improving food security - all at the same time as improving future water security.

One way to do that is by improving soil health, and especially increasing the organic matter it holds. More organisms in the soil combined with elevated levels of decaying plant material improves soil structure, enabling more water to be held (thereby reducing the impact of drought and reducing the risks of flooding). Increased soil organic matter means more carbon in the ground (and less carbon dioxide in the air) while recharging rivers and aquifers with cleaner water than is the case when soils are in a state of progressive degradation. That cuts the costs of cleaning it up before being put into pipes. Healthy soils will of course be vital in meeting rising demand for food, thereby bringing benefits there too.

We don't often think about agriculture when confronted with challenges linked to the future of our water supply, but this is one example on how rebuilding the health of Nature through integrated approaches really does make sense. There are others too, including in how wetlands can reduce flooding while cleaning water and how forests of different kinds can recharge clean water supplies.

It is not for want of good examples or sound science that we are wanting, however. It is more for imagination, impetus and realistic economics. Consequently a meeting convened by The Economist is a particularly fitting place for all this to be discussed.

First published by The Huffington Post 6th November 2014. 

The Princes of Wales's video message can be seen here: The Economist World Water Summit.