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Five large cities invest in upstream conservation to improve water quality for their residents

Since 2007, urban areas have been home to more than half the global population—a proportion that is expected to rise. Growing cities are putting pressure on the lakes and rivers on which they depend for water. But the needs of nature don’t have to be in conflict with human needs. By funding conservation projects upstream, cities around the world are finding that they can protect the natural environment and ensure they have clean, reliable water supplies.

The approach starts with addressing deforestation, erosion and agricultural runoff in the headwaters—just as New York City conserved the land around its upstate reservoirs so it could supply its millions of residents with clean drinking water. “The basic premise is that it’s cheaper and easier to fix the problem before it gets to the cities,” explains Andrea Erickson-Quiroz. (To see how water funds work, check out our infographic.) She leads The Nature Conservancy’s global effort to bring together governments, utilities, businesses and nonprofits, pooling money from downstream water users in water funds, which invest in upstream conservation.

In 2000, TNC helped set up the first water fund, in Quito, Ecuador, to protect and restore grasslands and forests high in the Andes, improving river flows and reducing erosion that muddies the water on which downstream city residents depend. The fund has a budget of more than $1.5 million per year, most of it covered by the city’s water company, which contributes 2 percent of its own budget. The project has the double benefit of improving water flow and quality while preserving and restoring vulnerable Andean habitat—about 100,000 acres so far… Read more from The Nature Conservancy