Natura Foundation Bolivia contributed to the report Beyond the Source: The environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection, led by The Nature Conservancy. Beyond the Source seeks to illustrate the value of nature to cities looking to secure water supplies while adding a number of benefits that address global challenges we face. By restoring forests and working with farmers and ranchers to improve their land management practices, we can improve water quality and reduce water treatment costs. The report highligths the importance of healthy source watersheds are vital natural infrastructure for nearly all cities around the world. They collect, store and filter water and provide benefits for biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, food security, and human health and well-being. Protecting and restoring the natural infrastructure of source watersheds can directly enhance water quality and quantity. The value of source water protection goes well beyond water security. The report offers for the first time, an in-depth exploration of the co-benefits—including climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity, and human health and well-being—that can result from source water protection investment.

Capturing the value of source watersheds through water funds

 The water fund, an institutional platform, can help resolve governance issues by bridging science, jurisdictional, financial and implementation gaps. For more than 15 years, water funds have helped communities improve water quality by bringing water users together to collectively invest in upstream habitat protection and land management, and mobilize innovative sources of funding.  As a permanent governance, investment and source water protection implementation mechanism, water funds provide the framework for collective action, connecting land stewards in rural areas and water users in urban areas to share in the value of healthy watersheds.

Natura Foundation Bolivia, pioneer institution in the implementing Watershared Funds

Natura Foundation Bolivia, is a pioneer institution in implementing agreements for watersheds and forests conservation. This conservation model is called Reciprocal Watershared Agreements (RWA). Municipal Watershared funds are one of the main mechanisms of RWA, where local institutions  such as municipal governments, wáter cooperatives, irrigators associations and Natura Foundation Bolivia invest in conservation of wáter fabrics through watershared funds. In Bolivian Watershared Funds, farmers who protect lands and streams receive compensation with a value of US$10 per hectare per year if they comply with their contract, and in the form of productive goods such as beehives, fruit trees, irrigation tubing and cement for construction of irrigation systems and water troughs for cattle. Conserved land is monitored yearly for compliance to ensure that cattle continue to stay out of forests and watercourses. Such investments from local institutions allow to pay for program implementation, compensation and monitoring, and provide the financial engine for long-term conservation and development in each municipality.

Promoting health through Watershared Funds

The Santa Cruz valleys of eastern Bolivia are among the most biodiverse regions on Earth, spanning an altitudinal range of nearly 3,000 meters and lying at the intersection of three major ecosystems: Amazonia, the Andes and the dry forests of central South America. However, pressure from agriculture in the region has led to forest degradation and fragmentation, as well as contamination and pollution of the aquatic environment, with implications for aquatic species, forest animals and local communities.

Communities in the area obtain water for drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation and irrigation from water bodies in the forest near settlements. While this makes them independent and largely self-sufficient in terms of water supply, it also means that water quality in those communities is dependent upon land use in the surrounding area upstream of water sources.

Farmers in the area allow their cattle to roam freely through the forest during a large part of the year. During this period, cattle have direct access to these water bodies for drinking, but they also contaminate them with their feces, which contain pathogenic viruses, bacteria and protozoa. The consequence of this is a public health crisis in many of the communities: widespread diarrhea, often affecting babies, young children and the elderly.

One case, from the village of Pucará, demonstrates the problem. Almost immediately after the village relocated its drinking source to a larger mountain stream, incidences of gastrointestinal disease increased dramatically. The source of the contamination was easy to identify: the new water source was situated in a catchment of 116 hectares used as rough grazing for cattle. None of the watercourses upstream of the outtake were protected and there was little conserved forestland within the catchment. Unsurprisingly, monitoring found heavy E. coli contamination.

As in many other communities in the region, the mayor of Pucará is working with a Watershared Fund, as well as landowners and the local water committee, to determine how to remove cattle from the watershed and to protect the watercourses from intrusion. To this end, the Municipal Government of Pucará is implementing Reciprocal Watershed Agreements (RWA); and through their municipal water fund, they are raising economic resources to protect their source watersheds.

Researchers from Natura Foundation Bolivia and collaborating universities have conducted water quality studies in the community to monitor changing levels of E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination. In the worst cases, levels of E. coli at water outtakes can reach 30,000 colony-forming units per liter, greatly increasing the risk of infection by people consuming this water. Colonies are enumerated using a field-friendly technology, Coliscan Easygel, that allows bacteriological work in contexts without laboratory equipment.

Monitoring is showing that real improvements in health outcomes can be achieved through investment in both upstream conservation and water infrastructure, of which there are many examples. Experiences of the Watershared Funds suggest that delivering water of high quality, sustainably and through locally appropriate technology, is achievable and requires creating and/or strengthening local institutions.