HomeDiscoveryNatural Capital ProjectMaking ecosystem services count

Making ecosystem services count

Around the world, farmers invest in dams and other infrastructure to supply water to their crops. This water is increasingly at risk, however, as more and more reservoirs fill with sediment from soil loss and land use change upstream. Conservation and restoration activities can help these farmers protect their water supplies and other ecosystem services upon which their livelihoods depend.

This is just one example of how providing natural resources to growing populations while protecting the environment is the crux of the sustainable development challenge currently playing out on the world’s stage, and IonE’s Natural Capital Project is creating software to help communities make informed land management decisions.

In concert with the recent adoption of a set of 17 sustainable development goals by the United Nations General Assembly in September, countries are making new, ambitious commitments to alleviate poverty, secure food and water resources, shift toward sustainable agricultural and manufacturing systems, and ensure prosperity for all over the next 15 years.

Natural resources and their ecosystem services are an important piece of this puzzle, but these contributions are too often left unquantified or undervalued in development planning. Discounting these resources, in turn, can harm countries’ ability to produce food, provide clean drinking water and protect biodiversity, for example, and may ultimately influence whether the SDGs are met. Moreover, ignoring ecosystem services often disproportionately impacts the poorest, most vulnerable people, who directly depend on these resources for their livelihoods.

To address the gap in linking the SDGs to ecosystem services and human well-being, researchers and developing country stakeholders came together this past year to develop indicators and ways to map, quantify and visualize services relevant to the SDGs. Researchers from the University of Minnesota (including Justin Andrew Johnson of NatCap), Bioversity International, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research and Columbia University, supported by Science for Nature and Peopleand the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, joined in the project.

Working group meetings ranged from internal discussions to larger gatherings with environmental and agricultural ministers, international NGOs and other implementation agencies involved in SDG-related planning, Johnson says. “We found out pretty quickly that this stakeholder community needs new tools that can generate development scenarios, overcome hurdles of data gathering and processing — a common choke point in ecosystem services assessments — and generate output summaries that are useful to policy-makers who do not have experience working with spatial data or maps.”

An important outcome of the collaboration that intends to meet this need is a decision-support tool called Modelling Ecosystem Services for Human well-being (MESH), which connects existing ecosystem services models to indicators of human well-being in a single, user-friendly interface. With this month’s first public, beta release of MESH (downloadable from the Natural Capital Project’s Software page), users will be able to explore the tool’s functionality with available ecosystem services models, along with its visualization and reporting capabilities.

MESH logo, courtesy of Justin Andrew Johnson and NatCap

MESH logo, courtesy of Justin Andrew Johnson and NatCap

“My favorite aspect of MESH is that a user can now point to a location — their area of interest — on a world map in the tool’s interface and in just a few clicks create location-specific input data from global sources, ready for use in ecosystem service models,” says Johnson. In addition, the software automatically generates reports that describe results in more detail and summarize key information in both maps and tables that can help planners and government officials describe trade-offs of different development decisions.

For example, in West Africa’s Volta River basin, where threats to dams and infrastructure from sedimentation are of particular interest, MESH is being used to map and summarize land use change scenarios that are useful for identifying locations for investments in protection and restoration efforts that could reduce sediment loads.

Johnson is presenting MESH and this application of the tool in the Volta River basin at the Ecosystem Services Partnership World Conference November 9-13, 2015 in Stollenbosch, South Africa. His presentation aligns well with the conference’s central theme of ‘Ecosystem Services for Nature, People and Prosperity’ and contributes to the dialogue on how the concept of ecosystem services, new techniques and tools can be directly applied to support conservation and to improve livelihoods necessary for sustainable development.

In addition to the ESP talk, MESH will also be covered in a tool kit training session organized by the Natural Capital Project following the conference (November 14, 16-17, 2015) with CGIAR and the Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society — a great opportunity for conference participants to get hands-on experience with ecosystem service modelling and exposure to the new tool.

With these upcoming events and other projects planned, Johnson is optimistic about MESH’s future. “We will continue to use MESH in projects in the Volta River Basin and have plans to apply and validate it in other developing country contexts, possibly in Indonesia and elsewhere,” he says. “In the longer term, my aspirational goal is to allow a larger and more diverse user base to assess the spatial trade-offs and synergies present between conservation and development goals.”

Photo by digitaltree515 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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