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Help Wanted: Investing In Water Conservation Contributes To Jobs And Livelihoods

Kelli Barrett

One way or another, water is wrapped up in essentially every job on the planet, which is why for this year’s World Water Day, the United Nations decided to focus on the connection between sustainable and clean water supplies and productive employment, finding payments for ecosystem services programs and investments in conservation can help.

22 March 2016 | Each year, the United Nations reminds society through its Human Development Report about the importance of employment and livelihoods in tackling global poverty. Number eight on the list of Sustainable Development Goals is dedicated in part to securing “full and productive employment and decent work for all,” not an easy task considering the current status.

According to the latest data, 830 million people are working poor, living on less than $2 a day, while 1.5 billion people globally are in vulnerable employment, working in unsafe conditions and lacking decent social security.

Perhaps it’s easy to overlook the significant role water plays in this global challenge. Access to clean water and sanitation is, of course, a prerequisite to sustainable livelihoods and decent jobs, but water is entrenched in global job security in ways which many people aren’t fully aware. Almost half of the world’s working population, 1.5 billion people, works in water related fields like agriculture, fishing, forestry, energy and transportation, according to this year’s United Nation’s World Water Development Report. The report goes on to determine that, in some capacity, all jobs are either heavily or moderately dependent on water.

And research streaming in from the last few years determined water conservation-related jobs significantly impacts the global workforce. In 2013, the research organization, the Pacific Institute, determined that between 12 and 22 direct, indirect and induced jobs are generated per $1 million invested in urban conservation, while between 10 and 72 jobs are created per $1 million invested in restoration activities. Meanwhile, last year, a study out of the University of North Carolina determined ecological restoration in the US is a $25 billion industry that generates 220,000 jobs.

But today is World Water Day, and in order to increase awareness and action specifically on the water-jobs nexus, UN-Water named “water and jobs” the theme for this year, focusing its annual World Water Development report on data and solutions related to this connection.

World Water Day is an international observance of global water-related issues that takes place each year on March 22.

“Water and jobs are inextricably linked on various levels, whether we look at them from an economic, environmental or social perspective. This edition of the World Water Development Report breaks new ground by addressing the pervasive relationship between water and jobs to an extent not yet seen in any other report,” the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said in a statement.

Water is key to society’s transition to the green economy, report authors write. And while they zero in on policy change and coordination among stakeholders to achieve that shift, the report also highlights conservation, ecosystem-based approaches to water management and the role the investment community plays in creating healthy jobs and economies.

Payments for Ecosystem Services as Job Creator

Often, discussion around the emerging payments for ecosystem services market centers on the environmental benefits of such programs, or its ability to finance long-term restoration and conservation objectives. But PES also can provide jobs to low income people, creating a new type of entrepreneurship for local communities, built around nature and conservation. Quantifying the ecosystem services that are generated or preserved through a PES project provides opportunity for improved livelihoods and stable employment.

Similarly, an ecosystem-based approach to watershed management, for example, that incorporates quantifying ecosystem services, can benefit local people with new employment opportunities and healthy livelihoods, the report says.

The Call for Water Investments

PES programs and other approaches to sustainable ecosystem management require finance and the policy and governance that help mobilize funds or spur investments.

Investment is a primary part of the UN’s report as it discusses the plethora of ways to invest in water that will lead to job improvements. Allocating funds to sanitation and hygiene services in the workplace leads to a more productive and healthy workforce while investing in green solutions like rain gardens, bioswales and green roofs is a growing choice among decision-makers to manage urban water pollution.

Improving water productivity in the irrigated agriculture sector, which consumes roughly 70% of Earth’s freshwater, through more efficient technologies, has the potential to generate US $115 billion in savings, the report estimates. And providing these water-saving technologies to 100 million poor farmers could lead to a direct total net benefit of US $100-200 billion, report authors say.

So investing in the many facets of water-related sectors is key to enhancing jobs and stimulating growth. And according to such investment firms as Guggenheim Investments, the growing urgency to reduce water pollution and increase efficiency makes water something of a hot commodity, creating opportunity for investors.

“Water may be an attractive investment opportunity across the globe,” says William Belden, Managing Director and Head of ETF Business Development for Guggenheim Investments. “As an essential commodity, it faces dynamic trends from population growth, new patterns of consumption, and climate change. Meeting the demand for water is a worldwide necessity that requires the development of new infrastructure to ensure efficient delivery and quality. For investors, this demand could be a consistent and compelling long-term market trend.”

Conservation Investments: A Smart Move

The Middle East is one region in desperate need of these water investments where natural resource scarcity continues to contribute to social unrest. Water scarcity and unemployment are deeply connected as drought, groundwater depletion and land degradation plague agricultural production among other economic sectors. Recent research the UN notes claims replacing inefficient irrigation techniques with sustainable agriculture could generate 10 million jobs.

Such investments are politically palatable in this region, the report says. Because of the severity of water stress and the economic strife it continues to cause, the traditional schism between environmental needs and job creation isn’t a factor.

In every region, however, water-related investments are necessary in supporting economic growth, leading to more and better jobs, the report concludes. These investments require proper policies that provide guidance and certainty, the report says, and notes the international community has already started the necessary dialogue among stakeholders.

Kelli Barrett is an freelance writer and Editorial Assistant at Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at kbarrett@ecosystemmarketplace.com.

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