The world’s freshwater ecosystems are in trouble. We’ve extracted, poisoned, polluted, damned and diverted a large proportion of the finite (and rather small!) amount of freshwater on the planet. Now, most people might immediately see the problem here from a selfish perspective – no clean, abundant water source = human disease, suffering and death. Definitely something to avoid, and a problem that all Australians are facing (i.e., it’s not just restricted to developing nations). Just look at the Murray-Darling problem.
In addition to affecting our own personal well-being, freshwater ecosystems are thought to support over 10000 fish species worldwide, and the majority of amphibians and aquatic reptiles. Current estimates suggest that about 1/3 of all vertebrate biodiversity (in this case, number of species) is confined to freshwater. As an example, the Mekong River system alone is thought to support up to 1700 different species of fish.
So, what are some of the ways forward? The concept of ‘water neutrality’ is essentially the wet version of carbon neutrality. It basically means that water usage can be offset by interventions to improve freshwater habitats and supply.
A great new paper by Nel and colleagues published online in Conservation Letters entitled Water neutrality: a first quantitative framework for investing in water in South Africa (definitely one for the Potential list) gives us a good model for how water neutrality should work. Using a South African example, they describe a scheme where investors are required to (1) review their water use, (2) implement a reduction strategy and (3) replenish water to hydrological systems through the investment in catchment services equivalent to their water use. It’s in this last act that the ‘neutrality’ can be achieved for the betterment of biodiversity – in the South African example, participants replenish their water use through investment in clearing of water-intensive invasive alien plants that choke freshwater systems and otherwise use much of the available water. And we all know how destructive invasive species can be (see previous post on this subject).
Not only does the scheme produce more water, it restores fragile freshwater ecosystems and does so within the economic framework that allows schemes like carbon trading to operate. We desperately need something like this in Australia. Imagine, more water for everyone AND healthy river systems (again, think Murray-Darling) – all paid for by previously water-intensive, but now ‘water-neutral’ firms. Imagine seeing labels on Australian produce that say ‘This is a Water Neutral product that supports freshwater ecosystem health’.