Protecting our ‘green’ water

“No water, no life. No blue, no green,” said legendary oceanographer, deep sea explorer and field researcher Dr. Sylvia Earle. To define access and management of fresh water, water is referred to as blue and green.

Blue water is surface, groundwater found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Green water is the rainwater held in soil and available to plants. It is the water absorbed by roots, used by plants, and released back to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration. ‘Green water’ relates to the water-holding capacity of soil.

To protect our Earth’s green water, it is important that the water cycle is circular: water lost in evaporation is returned back to the atmosphere forming clouds and rain and this is what sustains some of our most important ecosystems and rainforests. Rainforests are the lifeline of world’s fresh water and play a critical role in regulating the water cycle and circulating ‘green water’ back to the soil with the Amazon rainforest which makes up roughly 40% of global tropical forests, storing 112 billion tons of carbon dioxide helping stabilize temperatures around the globe.

So, how do we prevent this loss of ‘green’ water?

Commodity-driven deforestation in the tropical forests is the single biggest challenge affecting our global food systems. Food production depends on green water. Around 60% of staple food production globally and 80% of cultivated land is rain-fed. In these areas, the only water reaching the crop is what rain provides. Even irrigated crops rely on rain to some extent.

We humans are the problem. Asia’s middle class has doubled since 2000 and hence a dramatic increase in demand for agricultural commodities has resulted in more than 60 million hectares of forest loss in the tropical areas of Brazil, Indonesia and South-East Asia. China and India’s imports, combined with Brazil’s and Indonesia’s domestic consumption of soybeans, palm oil, pulp and paper, and beef, is rising 43% to 264 million metric tons by 2025.

Rather than harvesting crops for direct food consumption, crops are being harvested for animal feed, exports, industrial uses and processing. On top of the list, are palm oil and soybean followed by cocoa and coffee with cattle meat rising at a slower pace as per graph below. The food industry uses up more than 70% of the world-wide usage of palm-oil.

The entire harvesting patterns have changed. Brazil, Argentina and Mexico used to harvest food crops, but today the switching of crops is focused on exports and processed foods. Brazil is now the largest exporter of beef and leather switching from rice, wheat and maize. In India, the increased demand for branded and convenient items, modernization of retail and food service sectors has exponentially increased demand for palm oil.

Investing in trees, keeping Amazon alive, restoring forests:

The world continues to lose primary tropical forest equivalent in size to Belgium each year. Amazon rainforests are facing an estimated 17% loss of its forest cover over the last 40 years mainly due to agricultural land converted to pastures meant for cattle grazing and rearing. The Amazon is referred to as ‘lungs’ of the world as its healthy forests store carbon and an estimated 340 million tons of carbon-di-oxide removed from the air each year.

Read this story about how Amazon’s forests when managed by local (indigenous) people were safeguarded and preserved for decades. For Indigenous people and other communities, their land is a primary source of food, medicine, fuelwood and construction materials, as well as employment, income, welfare, security, culture and spirituality. Protecting indigenous forests and their communities is the most cost-effective carbon storage mechanism that we recognize and defend against deforestation.

In a landmark move last year, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right. In India too, Madras high court ruled that ‘Mother Nature’ has the same legal status as a human being and it is our environmental duty to future generations to preserve nature .

These help strengthen constitutional rights that empower people be active participants in environmental protection. All countries under the Paris agreement have committed to conserve billions of trees and India which is the third largest carbon emitter has an ambitious goal to restore 26 million hectares of forest land by 2030.

In conclusion:

We are facing a wicked problem, demand for commodities is resulting in forest-loss impacting farmers and local communities. Actions are needed to improve productivity of land, so farmers have incentives to continue farming sustainably, reduce food waste, shift our diets by embracing plant-based alternatives and keep our forests standing. Restoration of degraded land through practices such as reforestation, sustainable agricultural practices and water efficient investments can transform usage of land collectively and thereby protect our ‘green’ water, the main ingredient that balances carbon cycle and keeps Earth ‘green and cool’.

Rainforests of Nagaland, India

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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