Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Prince Charles tells it like it is

Here is the whole of Prince Charles’ recent address to the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM). He mainly focuses on water, but brings in ecological economics and the necessity of putting a real value on the “services” which the ecosystem provides for us for free so that the market would work in favour of sustainable approaches in future as opposed to today where  the market mostly discriminates against sensible ways because ecosystem services do not appear on the accountant’s “bottom line”. _____________________________________________________



Marking the 25th anniversary of becoming an Honorary Fellow of CIWEM, HRH the Prince of Wales considers the changes that have taken place in the environment sector and the challenges ahead

It hardly seems possible that I have been an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM) for 25 years.  I remember accepting the invitation because I wanted to encourage the wider world to see the crucial importance of environmental management as a profession.  Believe it or not, environmental management was then still seen by many as something to be added to the job description of health and safety managers.   At about the same time I found myself in distinctly hot water for venturing to suggest that we should no longer use the North Sea as 'a bottomless pit for our waste,' so an alternative view is that I was looking for safety in numbers.  Either way, those days are long gone.  The Institution has played a remarkable leadership role in establishing and guiding the profession, and long may that continue.

The problem, of course, is that over the same period the range and severity of the environmental problems we face has grown exponentially.  The challenges are no longer just about 'cleaning up after ourselves;' they are about taking action to ensure the survival of our own species, against the clock of climate change and natural resource depletion. 

Water is at the heart of many environmental challenges, as it is of life itself.  The availability of water has shaped both human existence and geography, defining where and how we live, and constraining our ambitions.  It remains the essential natural resource, on which all else depends.  Yet, perhaps because wherever there is life there is water, we take it for granted.  As Rachel Carson, author of  Silent Spring, put it:  'In an age when Man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.'

That indifference, coupled with a view that we can engineer our way out of any conceivable difficulty, may yet be our undoing.  Sometimes achieving sustainability may require what appear to be backward steps.  I remember seeing a vivid example of this in Rajasthan.  Traditional, village-based systems of harvesting the monsoon rains, developed over thousands of years, fell into disrepair in the 1950s when powerful pumps allowed groundwater to be extracted instead.  But this turned out to be an unsustainable, short-term solution because the groundwater was not being replenished.  Levels eventually dropped below the reach of the pumps, irrigation became impossible and the villages began to decline as people drifted away to look for work in the cities.  The breakthrough came from a remarkable man called Rajendra Singh.  He encouraged a local self-help approach to rebuilding the ancient system of dams and ponds and started harvesting the monsoon once again.  Groundwater levels crept back up, previously dried-up rivers started flowing again and, 20 years later, more than half a million people in Rajasthan are feeling the benefit.

Closer to home, water harvesting is just as important.  Yet we still need to identify the best strategies and it is clear that there are no easy answers, especially when energy use and ensuring public health are added to the equation.  With the wisdom of hindsight it would, of course, have been better if our domestic water supply systems had been developed with separate potable and non-potable networks.  That may be one way ahead but, in the meantime, we need to identify the best strategies for the systems we have.  Building large scale reservoirs and filling them at times of peak river flow is one approach to rainwater harvesting.  At the other end of the scale it is clear that much more can be done to harvest rainwater and grey water for non-potable uses, though I note some important caveats in the Institution's position paper on that subject.  Equally, it seems there may be a role for greater reuse of sewage effluent, at least for non-potable uses.

Similarly, there have been problems ever since urban man first began to requisition rivers and streams to take away his wastes.  As early as 1388, it became illegal to dump animal waste, dung or litter into England's rivers.  Environment Agency employees might like to note that the penalties for offenders then included hanging!  As with clean water, managing wastewater brings network issues.  In particular, the legacy of combined sewers taking both human waste and surface water run-off causes capacity problems, leading to damaging overflows to rivers, which have in all other respects been cleaned up.  Once again there are no easy answers, especially in large conurbations where space is at a premium.

I know that these are the issues with which many members of the Institution will be grappling on a daily basis, so the last thing I am going to do is offer any advice.  What I would like to encourage is closer involvement by water and environmental management professionals in what, to me, seems to be the most important development in a wider field of interest.

As the economist Herman Daly pointed out, the environment is, 'the envelope that contains, sustains and provisions the economy,' - not the other way round.  Yet in a world where economics has, rightly or wrongly, the greatest possible influence on decision-making, the environment is always in danger of being discounted.  The answer, surely, is to find ways of measuring the economic benefits provided to mankind by the environment - in the form of biodiversity and ecosystems. 

The concept of 'ecosystem services' has been discussed for a number of years, but the debate has moved on considerably with an initiative known as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB for short.  There is now a series of  TEEB reports setting out not only the benefits of taking into account the value of ecosystem services and biodiversity in making decisions and choices, but also explaining how this can be done, with some excellent case studies.  There are reports addressed to policy-makers, to business, to regional and local government and to citizens. 

TEEB's reports also reiterate something I have long tried to encourage businesses to recognise - that we should not regard this type of valuation and pricing as a tax. We should see it as an incentive for powerful investment for the future; something to be achieved not through imposition and dictum, but through reassessment and realignment of thinking and exchange and discussion.

In this regard, it is perhaps worth noting that looking forward to 2030, research by McKinsey & Co. for the Water Resources Group indicates that global water requirements will be 40 per cent greater than the current sustainable supply, assuming current rates of economic growth.  This is because agricultural demand is expected to grow substantially, while urban and industrial use will also grow strongly.  At the same time the need to maintain environmental flow requirements to prevent the collapse of important riparian ecosystems will place additional limits on water availability. 

Most of our natural capital has not been properly valued and charged for, because assets like fish in the oceans, water in rivers, rainfall, a clean and temperate atmosphere and communities, have always been thought of as limitless and freely available. It is also, of course, because valuing these things and charging for natural capital can be difficult when the assets do not necessarily belong to a particular individual, organisation or country. In short, providing quantitative figures for qualitative values has proved a somewhat elusive science.

Measuring the contribution to the economy made by ecosystems and biodiversity could be an important step towards maintaining the productivity of the natural resource base on which we all depend.  It could also help to quantify the risks of both action and inaction, thereby helping to drive good decision-making. 

This is not just a job for economists, or for policy-makers, or even for scientists and practitioners.  It is a role for the whole of society and I do hope that the Institution will build on its commendably concise and readable position papers by identifying the distinctive contribution it could make to the discussion on valuing ecosystem services.  There is no time to lose.

The profession of environmental management has come a long way in 25 years, but the decisions you take, encourage and inform in the next few years will have a cumulative effect upon humanity's ability to survive in the long-term.  So I will continue to watch your progress with the greatest of interest.


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