Water capital

Readers' views No 257, October 2006
OECD Observer

Secretary-General Angel Gurría argues that "advancing on the issue of water will help us move forward on almost all the Millennium Development Goals" (Editorial, in No 256, July 2006). We agree, and would like to draw your attention to the Working for Water programme (WfW) in South Africa.

WfW aims to increase water yield by clearing invasive alien plants, which consume significantly more water than indigenous vegetation and deflect native ecosystems from their natural trajectories. Employing more than 30,000 people annually in a public works programme, it seeks to alleviate poverty while also achieving important ecological and environmental goals. WfW has encountered serious problems in achieving its complex and ambitious targets, but it has been transparent about its shortcomings and flexible in learning from them. It remains an inspirational and practical model for reconciling economic and ecological aspirations in the developing world.

As scientists seeking to promote synergy between ecology and economics, we see WfW as an example of a new movement towards what we call the Restoration of Natural Capital. Natural capital includes non-renewable resources, renewable resources, replenishable resources–the atmosphere, drinking water, fertile soils–and cultivated resources, such as crops and forest plantations.

Development depends on conserving and expanding a strong capital base. Yet our economies are exhausting non-renewable resources without finding adequate substitutes and critically destabilising the eco-systems that produce renewable, replenishable and cultivated natural capital. Today we're spending tomorrow's interests, a recipe for both economic and ecological disaster. A new, smarter strategy would be to invest in development's limiting factor, natural capital.

However, the impact of wasting our natural capital, and the ecosystem services that flow from them, do not figure in our national and international balance sheets. The OECD, though it considers other indicators, insists that GDP per head is still the best way to measure well-being (Going for Growth 2006). But GDP fails to account for the way in which unfettered economic growth is frittering away our natural capital base. Alternatives do exist and have been widely discussed (see references below). Various approaches are being developed and need to be encouraged by public and private interests. Time for a re-think.

Dr. James Aronson, Centre L. Emberger Restoration Ecology Group, CNRS Montpellier, France, james.aronson@cefe.cnrs.fr

Prof. Suzanne Milton, Dept. of Conservation Ecology University of Stellenbosch South Africa

Prof. James Blignaut, Dept. of Economics University of Pretoria South Africa

The writers are editors of a forthcoming book, Restoring Natural Capital: Science, Business and Practice, Island Press, US, May 2007.

See also: Woodworth, P. (2006), "Working for Water", in The World Policy Journal, summer edition (www.mitpressjournals.org/).

Comments and letters may be edited for publishing. Send your letters to observer@oecd.org or post your comments at these portals: www.oecdobserver.orgwww.oecdinsights.org, or at the other OECD portals on this page.

©OECD Observer No 257, October 2006

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