A side event on the socio-economic benefits of protected areas for water security, organised by IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) and IEEP, took place at the IUCN Word Parks Congress in Sydney on Monday 17th. The purpose of the session was to show if and how socio-economic assessment and valuation of water-related benefits can support the creation of sustainable solutions for protected area and water management. In particular, the session aimed to illustrate concretely how the existing tools for assessing benefits can be matched with real policy needs and management solutions for protected areas.
The inspiring session clearly showed that a number of useful, accessible and user-friendly tools are available to illustrate and assess the water-related benefits provided by protected areas. These range from remote sensing tools, to hydrological modelling ‘testbeds’ (such as WaterWorld) and inventories of socio-economic valuation methods (such as ValueES) . These tools can play a very helpful role in both visualising and assessing the role of protected areas in nature-based water management, raising real interest among stakeholders and providing a good basis for the development of policy instruments such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). However, it was also pointed out that ‘a tool is just an opinion’, ie no tool can be all-encompassing and provide answers to all ecosystem service and benefit related aspects needing to be considered in the decision-making process. Therefore, one should always consider using a suitable portfolio of tools and methods to secure the best overall final outcome.
The session also made firm connections between the knowledge on water-related benefits – and tools enabling to capture it – to policy needs and management outcomes for protected areas. The ever-encouraging pioneering example of the successful development and establishment of PES schemes for biodiversity, carbon and water in Costa Rica provided the attendants with insights into how to manage the interplay between gathering knowledge and evidence and ensuring policy uptake at the same time. One of the key conclusions from the Costa Rica case study is that the key initial objective for socio-economic assessments supporting policy instruments such as PES should be to ensure the overall buy-in for the instrument, rather than focusing on technical details such as determining the exact payment levels. Finally, an example from Ulu Muda forest, Malaysia, showcased how several protected areas around the world were currently seeking to find similar, water-related arguments and evidence for establishing links between biodiversity protection and wider human wellbeing and socio-economic development. Based on the outcomes of this session, it seems that the complete chain from knowledge to practice, ie from ecosystem service related knowledge and assessments to concrete policies and management tools, is operational.