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With increasing water scarcity challenges globally, the role of trees and forests in the water cycle is at least as important as their role in the carbon cycle in the face of global change.

Several experts from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) joined a team of international scientists whom together compiled a report, which explores the role of trees and forests in the water cycle.

The global report, titled The Forest and Water on a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities, addresses critical questions such as what people can do with forests to ensure a sustainable quality and quantity of water to support the health and wellbeing of both forests and people.

CSIR experts who contributed to the report include: CSIR chief researcher, Dr Emma Archer as a co-ordinating lead author; CSIR research group leader, Dr Mark Gush as a lead author; CSIR research group leader, Dr Marius Claassen as a co-ordinating lead author and CSIR senior researcher, Dr Lorren Haywood as a contributing author.

The report was unveiled during the recent United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, held in New York. Read more: Smart water metering trends over 2017-2024

Contributions from the CSIR experts in the report covered a broad range of topics namely; forest hydrology, climate and land-use change, and governance-related aspects, as well as multiple benefits and synergies in trade-offs.

“Trees and forests provide fibre, fuel, jobs and other socio-economic benefits, but when their establishment replaces other land use, they also have significant environmental impacts, both positive and negative,” the research council said in a statement.

Addressing changing forest-water relations

The council highlighted: “An important issue in South Africa is the requirement, mandated by the 1998 Water Act, for government-issued licences to undertake ‘stream flow reduction activities’ (solely represented by plantations of introduced tree species).

“These were introduced to control large-scale commercial afforestation activities and their downstream impacts (streamflow reductions).”

In the report, Gush highlights the South African science behind this unique policy, as well as the benefits and challenges that have arisen as a result.

In terms of governance options for addressing changing forest-water relations, authors argue from a systems perspective that governance represents a key driver when it comes to the potential for addressing rapid environmental, climate, social and even technological change, as we seek to achieve resilient multi-functional landscapes.

In this chapter, with contributions by Archer and Haywood, South Africa’s Working for Water initiative is singled out as a successful programme developed by the government to augment streamflow.

The authors argue that there is an urgent need to bring together forest and water managers to allow forests to be managed explicitly for water as well as other benefits.

The report is available for download here: