One in six people today dont have access to safe drinking water. Documented species extinctions are more than 15 times higher in fresh water than in oceans
. And the outlook for fresh water resources is now more serious than ever.
On this World Water Day, Earths dwindling supply of fresh water is exacerbating the spread of disease, the rise of poverty, and the disruption of ecosystems worldwide. Should we allow our fresh water to run dry or become polluted, neither people nor the unique species that depend on lakes, rivers, and streams will survive.
Costa Rica recognized this danger long ago, and has been working successfully to prevent it. All the while, China has been watching and is in the early stages of implementing similar solutions.
The Costa Rica Model
In the past few decades, Costa Rica has transformed itself from an environmentally damaged country into a thriving one. A world leader in conservation, the country provides incentives to its smallest communities and its largest companies for their conservation of natural resources, including fresh water.
Under the leadership of former environment minister, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica established an Environmental Services Payment Program in 1996, built on a solid foundation of existing forestry laws.
Healthy forests provide multiple benefits, including the prevention of erosion, flooding, and sedimentation, all of which hasten water-borne disease. Conserving watersheds also reduces water treatment costs, as water collected from forests is usually cleaner than water collected from deforested or urban areas.
To better conserve and protect its fresh water, Costa Rica provides benefits to its water users. The government collects fees from private businesses and hydroelectric power companies for their use of water resources. Those fees help fund conservation and the countrys national park system. For example, a 1998 fee agreement with National Power and Light Company which sells nearly half of the electricity consumed in Costa Rica by drawing water from four river basins now generates just under half a million U.S. dollars each year for conservation.
Today, fewer than 500 of some 2,000 aqueducts in Costa Rica require treatment or disinfection plants. The town of Heredia, for example, does not filter its water. Instead, it recoups that cost by conserving its watershed through a government program in conjunction with a large bottler in the region.
This is working so well because this was not something that was created from one day to another, says Rodriguez, who now directs CI's MesoAmerican Center for Biodiversity Conservation. This is the final product of a 30-year-long process of policy making in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is phasing in a compulsory conservation fee over the next seven years for hydropower producers, municipal water supply systems, bottlers, and irrigators that will be directed toward watershed conservation. Beginning this year, every water user in Costa Rica big or small, public or private will assume the ecological cost of water. Once fully implemented, the water tariff will likely generate U.S. $21 million for conservation each year.
Replicating Costa Ricas Efforts in China
As is already clear in China, climate change makes the need to protect fresh water more urgent than ever. Last winter, Chinese delegates visited Costa Rica for a crash course in payments for ecosystem services, facilitated by Conservation International (CI). As China's first official ministerial-level delegation to visit Costa Rica, the meeting was a crucial step in influencing those who draft China's natural resource laws.
The delegation met with Costa Rican officials and hydroelectric companies, as well as farmers and indigenous communities that are benefiting from water tariffs. The chairmen of China's and Costa Rica's environmental committees signed a document agreeing to collaborate on future conservation efforts. Chinas People's National Congress delegation also wrote a report to Chinas leadership after the trip initiating plans to develop payment for ecosystem services projects in China.
On the heels of that visit, CI will continue to work with interested national governments to replicate Costa Ricas success.
CI-China is already working with the World Bank to develop a payment for watershed services system in Chinas Lijiang, Yunnan Province a popular tourist destination that experiences water shortages and poor water quality. The municipal government and the community will receive a joint CI-World Bank report on the project in April.
CI-China is also creating a China Freshwater Conservation Fund scheduled to launch in conjunction with the 2008 Beijing Olympics which will further identify and protect high biodiversity watersheds with public and private support.
As China looks forward to hosting that event, CI-China Program Director Lu Zhi, who traveled with the delegation to Costa Rica, is certain that maintaining clean air, clean water, and abundant biodiversity will lead to healthier, sustainable lifestyles and provide economic benefits to China and its people.
The delegation could see there was a culture for appreciating nature, she said.