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school of Red fish
The waters of Raja Ampat in the Bird's Head Seascape teem with hundreds of fish species.

Protecting Water to Protect Life

March 30, 2021
Jennifer Morris
Climate change threatens our water resources and the communities they support. Here’s why I am impatiently optimistic we can create a better future

I believe in a future where nature and people thrive together — a future where clean, plentiful water sources support both human and planetary health.

Every day we see more evidence of why it’s not only important, but essential, that we take action now to create that future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our broken connection with the natural world as we increasingly understand the links between the destruction of nature and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

This Moment: Jennifer Morris
Climate change threatens water resources and the communities they support. Hear from Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, on why this moment is so important.

We are also facing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, intertwined challenges that pose enormous risks for communities and the water resources they rely on around the world.

The last seven years have been the hottest ever recorded on our planet. That trend is contributing to more frequent and intense storms, more heat, more droughts and more devastation of lands and waters.

Indeed, there has never been a more urgent moment to protect water resources and the communities they support.

As temperatures begin to rise, 100-year floods could become annual events in the Northeast United States. In the Western states, wildfire frequency has quadrupled since the 1980s, and the fire season has increased by 78 days.

Mississippi River flooding
Several states in the upper Mississippi River basin suffered record flooding in the spring of 2019.

Half of the world's population already lives in water-scarce places – and that figure will increase in the face of continued population growth and climate change. Last year, a United Nations report revealed that 1 million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades.

Despite these challenges, I am an impatient optimist. As governments and communities rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reassess our priorities and set a new course to protect nature and all she provides for us.

At The Nature Conservancy, we think this new course will require some fundamental shifts in how society produces food, water and energy. These shifts will be most effective and durable when they are informed by on-the-ground experiences and key geographies. They will also require working across sectors.

We’ve seen the power of global, and local, collaboration to address complex problems. Let me give you a few examples from The Nature Conservancy's work that can provide a roadmap to a more secure water future.

Mississippi River Basin forest.

First, we need to harness the power of the marketplace. Fisheries provide a great illustration of how this looks. In Chile, we are working with the Walton Family Foundation to support market access for seafood products sourced from small coastal fisheries. We've also developed FishPath, a tool that helps fisheries, managers and communities co-design strategies that will put their fisheries on the path to sustainability.

We know that one of the best ways to protect marine resources is to work directly with the communities and markets that depend on them.

Second, we need to advance smart policies. For example, in the Colorado River Basin we are working with partners to shape policies that address ongoing water shortages exacerbated by climate change.

Over the last decade, we've made big strides, including influencing two water-sharing agreements between the United States and Mexico that include environmental provisions.

These policies are a win for nature and for the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for water, food, recreation and energy.

Third, we need to embrace and accelerate innovation. Right now, satellite technology is helping us monitor the adoption of soil health practices and measure their environmental benefits. Using this data, we can better scale up practices like conservation tillage and cover crops, which have enormous potential to sequester carbon, improve water quality and even increase agricultural yields.

We must lift up the voices of vulnerable communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change and other environmental threats.

And finally, it's critical that we focus on equitable, just outcomes for all communities.

To affect lasting change, we must lift up the voices of vulnerable communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change and other environmental threats.

Together these strategies will lead to a healthy environment, healthy communities and healthy economies.

We know these strategies work. We have the science, the solutions and the public’s support. A poll released in the fall of 2020 by the Walton Family Foundation reveals almost universal agreement among Americans, regardless of political affiliation, that the nation needs to take immediate action to protect water and address climate change.

COPY. Canyon and Colorado river
Collaboration is replacing confrontation as rural and urban water users alike work together to manage threats facing the Colorado River.

The time is ripe to tap into this collective energy to protect our planet’s water resources.

2021 is the new ‘super year’ for the environment with pivotal global conferences, rescheduled from last year, that will set the ambition and direction for this decade.

As we head into this crucial decade for the planet, our message must be clear and consistent.

Nature's future is our future. With a focus on market-based strategies, policy innovation and equity, we can seize this enormous opportunity and make that future a reality.

Adapted from remarks at the Walton Family Foundation’s Learning & Leading Together conference on February 9, 2021.

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