Water-related ecosystem services of forests: learning from regional cases.

Published online
18 Mar 2015
Content type
Bulletin article

Nyssen, J. & Toit, B. du & Vidale, E.
Contact email(s)
jan.nyssen@ugent.be & ben@sun.ac.za & enrico.vidale@gmail.com

Publication language
Ethiopia & Africa South of Sahara & Italy & South Africa


Forests are widely recognised as recommended land cover for protection of water resources. It is commonly understood that forests control erosion, improve water quality and regulate water flows in catchments to some extent. Less-well understood are aspects of the so-called green water flow: biomass production in forests has a price locally in terms of evaporative water losses though it can provide rainfall elsewhere. In this chapter, we discuss the complex and sometimes contra-intuitive issues that emerge when trying to optimise forest management for water-related ecosystem services. We analyse three cases in very different geographical and socio-economic settings where the water-related ecosystem services of the forest have been a driver for forest management transition. In the first example from Ethiopia, forests are restored for soil and water conservation purposes related to green water, while in the second case in South Africa, plantation forests are removed with the intention of ecological restoration and increase in blue water availability. In the last case from Italy, we discover that schemes for payment for ecosystem services (PES) make a change with respect to water-related ecosystem services. The case studies show that such transitions can follow very different pathways, determined by the biophysical, socio-economic, and institutional contexts. But despite these differences, the case studies show patterns in common. The success or failure of management policies is highly scale-dependent (extension and intensity of the intervention). Changes aimed at improving an ecosystem service always show trade-offs with other ecosystem services. Often, measures in catchments are based on a correct interpretation of hydrological knowledge but fail to optimise for the range of upstream and downstream ecosystem services at stake. The main challenge for the future is to further foster the ongoing paradigm shift in the way water-related forest ecosystems services are considered, with a change from supply-side policies to demand-side policies and supply-demand linkages and from purely technical solutions to green infrastructure solutions.

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