Posted on May 24, 2023
After overcoming a few technical glitches, Tom Iseman (Director of Water Scarcity and Markets for the Global Freshwater Program of the Nature Conservancy) gave us, by Zoom, an interesting and wide-ranging summary of various nature-based approaches to addressing water scarcity, especially in Africa.  He started with a brief statistical summary of The Nature Conservancy: some 1 million members, 4000 conservationists, 600 scientists working in some 80 countries and territories around the world focusing on both land acquisition and research into improving water availability and land ecosystems.  The overall actions of the Nature Conservancy are focused in three areas: climate; food and water, especially water availability; and land protection, especially terrestrial ecosystems. 
As background, he showed an evolving map of increasing world-wide water stress, starting in 1900 and ending essentially today, showing the widespread challenge, especially in Africa and India with their large and growing populations.  Some ¾ of the arable land in the world is in danger of losing productivity due to water stress. 
One of the approaches used by The Nature Conservancy is advocacy for Regenerative Food Systems.  This process works with local communities to look at how they grow food and then incorporate nature in food production so that they are cooperating with nature rather than fighting with nature.  Among other things, this approach has the capability of creating greater nutrition security, actively restoring habitat and protecting biodiversity, creating new jobs, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and better management of freshwater and land ecosystems. 
TNC works to promote regenerative food systems through work in “Foodscapes”: distinct food production geographies with combinations of biophysical characteristics and management attributes. They plan to advance some 12 – 15 regenerative foodscapes globally during this decade.  The example that he presented was in the central highlands of Kenya.  There, they focus on crop-livestock systems including coffee, tea, vegetables and dairy production.  The effort is to reduce forest cover loss and increase reforestation, improve water availability and quality, limit conversion of wildlife habitat to agriculture, and improve famer livelihoods from increased water, land health, and localized climate benefits. 
Another effort by the Conservancy is to foster Resilient Watersheds using local water fund organizations that unite public, private, and civil-society stakeholders to fund and drive financial and governance mechanisms to contribute to water security through nature-based solutions.  There are currently some 50 water funds active around the globe, including some 16 in Africa.  This approach attempts to unite downstream cities and utilities with upstream water-source entities to work together to fund and develop superior water-management practices to improve availability and quality of water.  This approach tends to focus on farming practices, but in South Africa the focus in on addressing water use by non-native or invasive plants.  An example in Kenya highlighted improved profitability from tomato crops. 
Both funding and diversity of approach are encouraged by partnerships with other organizations.  One partnership that he highlighted was with the Brogdon Family Foundation (Malcolm Brogdon, a basketball player for the Celtics, who, interestingly, has a master’s degree in Public Policy) and the NBA Players Association.  Another is with the Denver Botanic Gardens; another with the UN’s International Drought Resilience Alliance.  One of the long-term results that they hope to effect is to create early-warning systems for drought/water problems so that problems can be addressed before they become acute. 
What are the economics of their work in Africa?  That is a real challenge.  They try to work in partnership with cities and to elicit corporate sponsorships.  One of the innovative financial approaches is to elicit debt for nature swaps (or “nature swaps”), wherein sovereign debt is reduced in exchange for increased conservation efforts. 
What are the options for dealing with the fact that we have less water for more people?  Essentially, all options are on the table including waste water and marginal water.  Although desalination is possible, they are not doing any research in that area; he cited the high energy cost and the environmental cost of disposing of the resulting brine.