WIsing up: Investigating the effects of climate change on water funds
In the past two decades, water funds, mechanisms through which downstream users invest in upstream conservation, have spread throughout the world – and for good reason. Keeping water clean and flowing at the source is cheaper and more reliable than fixing problems downstream. Since the first funds were created, however, our climate has changed – leading to an important question: What happens to a water fund in the face of an ever-warming Earth?
It’s this question that a group of scientists from the University of Minnesota, the University of North Texas, the University of Hawai’i, the University of São Paulo, the University of Kassel, Germany, and the Natural Capital Project decided to answer. In 2016, with funding support from a Belmont Forum research grant, the team founded ClimateWIse, a three-year initiative dedicated not only to evaluating the current efficacy of investing in water funds, but also to enhancing sustainable water management through increased understanding of the hydrologic impacts of land use and climate change.
Over the program’s three-year span, the ClimateWIse team plans to visit the sites of water funds throughout South America to research collaboratively with current WaterFund workers and beneficiaries. The first year, the team traveled to Brazil, and this February, the scientists continued their research at one of the world’s oldest water funds in Quito, Ecaudor. Among the ClimateWIse cohort visiting Quito were IonE’s Kate Brauman and Kelly Meza Prado.
According to Kate Brauman, lead scientist for IonE’s Global Water Initiative, the collaborative model and internationality of the ClimateWIse team contributes to its strength. “ClimateWIse brings so many different perspectives to the table,” she says. “This gives us the opportunity to understand and assess the challenges and opportunities for water funds and the connections of land use to water in the montane tropics in totally unique ways, and hopefully develop insights totally different than what we would have gotten from a single perspective.”
The benefits of this approach were especially clear during the team’s trip to Quito, which began with two days of discussion of hydrology and the future of water funds, and concluded with two days of visits to project sites. Seven international scientists collaborated with more than a dozen local workers and water fund beneficiaries to evaluate the current state of water funds in Ecuador.
Genuinely engaging with communities on-site is crucial to ClimateWIse’s work, says Meza Prado. “We can do all the research in the world, but if our partners feel that our research lacks applicability in the places where they work or is not answering to their immediate needs, then, as researchers, we are failing to ask the right questions,” she says. “Maintaining an activate communication with our partners is critical.” Even after the ClimateWIse team departs from the sites, scientists continue to work with site representatives to ensure ongoing success for both the research and the water funds.
As ClimateWIse enters its third and final year in 2019, Brauman says it will be one of careful synthesis and reflection. “We’ve finished a lot of the data gathering and model set-up, so we really get to dive in to the analysis and interpretation.” She also hopes to connect ClimateWIse to a larger audience. With diverse perspective and continued outreach leading the way, ClimateWIse will make an impact on water funds for decades to come.
Grace Becker is the communications assistant at the Institute on the Environment and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability, and Spanish.