A terrible confusion

A report that blames trees for water crisis. Or does it?

By Kirtiman Awasthi
Published: Saturday 15 October 2005

-- A new report of the uk's forestry research programme (frp) has stirred a hornet's nest. Called From the mountain to the tap , the report uses evidence from 12 countries to incriminate trees and forests for water shortages. Large scale afforestation and big irrigation schemes result in land use changes, which, in turn, affect the availability of both blue water (which flows to rivers and aquifers) and green water (which returns to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration), the study concludes.

While the culpability of large irrigation schemes for groundwater depletion is quite well known, heaping blame on afforestation projects is contentious. The report explains: "Large-scale afforestation schemes very often involve plantations of exotic and evergreen species."

Here lies the catch The report uses "plantation" and "afforestation" interchangeably.For example, at one place it notes, "The assumption that large forestations should reverse agricultural decline and restore rural livelihoods is not always true. However, this belief is still in practice in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Himalaya, where indigenous people are displaced to make way for forest plantations run by large private firms (emphasis added)". And this is not all: frp's press release to announce the report states, "Trees are overplayed as solutions to water problems".

A gullible media lapped this up and added to the confusion. For example, the uk daily Telegraph noted, "Millions are wasted on trees that reduce water", while the New Scientist stated, "Planting trees may create deserts" (see 'Trees are bad,' Down To Earth, September 15, 2005).

But should forests and plantations be used interchangeably? Definitely not, say experts. "Plantations, especially monocultures, cannot be termed as forests. The latter hold a complex, dynamic integrated system of flora and fauna: trees of different species, sizes and ages, as well as other vegetation such as grasses. Plantation on the other hand reduces the function of a forest into something simple and artificial, such as the cultivation of timber of industrial profit," explains an expert on the condition of anonymity.

Clarification Semantic faux pas aside, what exactly does From the mountain to the tap accomplish? One of the authors of the report, Ian Calder, director of the Centre for Land Use and Water Research at the University of Newcastle, uk, clarifies, "We are not saying that forests never produce water benefits or that they don't have important roles in the eco-system". So, its large monocultures that are actually the target of From the mountain to the tap (See box: The actual villains). "A few companies promote plantations of exotic species to sell carbon credits. However, the economic link between those who pay for these environmental services and those who benefit from them are not clear," the report states. It then goes on to add: "Industrial tree plantations have had devastating effects on our planet. In Brazil, eucalyptus plantations have reduced access to....water resources."

The way out "Watershed management plans should promote forest regeneration to rehabilitate habitats and ensure benefits for local communities," say the authors of the report. One of them, Ashwin Gosain, scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi states, "Huge sums of money are spent on plantations. We need policies based on more scientific evidence". Well said. One hopes the authors had been as meticulous with their terminology.

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