Wildlife conservation takes more than just stopping hunters, poachers, and illegal animal traders. The protection and proper management of large tracts of forests and wetlands make up what we call ecosystem-based conservation management.

This holistic approach entails the integrated management of people, plants, animals and nonliving resources to practice conservation, sustainable use, and fair trade.

This month, we zoom into a watershed which supplies the lion’s share of water for over 20 million people.

Worrying about watersheds

The Ipo Watershed, together with the Angat and Umiray watersheds, supplies 98% of the water consumed by Metro Manila. Situated northeast of the sprawling Metropolis, it covers 7,236 hectares in Norzagaray and San Jose Del Monte in Bulacan, plus Rodriguez in Rizal. It is home to several species of charismatic animals, including the Philippine Brown Deer, Philippine Warty Pig, Tarictic Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, and Osprey.

Sadly, the watershed’s forests have been in full retreat. Though protected by several proclamations including a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title for the Indigenous Dumagat tribes of the watershed, the area is pockmarked by patches of burnt soil. From 85% forest cover plummeted to 40% in recent years, mostly due to slash-and-burn or kaingin farming and charcoal-making.

At present rates, the Philippines is losing 52,000 trees daily. Logging, slash-and-burn-farming, and land development are erasing 47,000 hectares of forestland yearly. How much land is this? Imagine an area three times the size of Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila.

Domino effect

While currently reeling from the global COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Manila also suffered a dramatic water shortage last summer. In March 2019, 10,000 Metro Manila households lost water access as La Mesa Dam dropped to its lowest water level in 12 years. Manila’s residents were forces to walk and line up for hours just to secure water for washing, bathing and brushing their teeth.

This prompted an alliance between GCash, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), plus the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Together, the four groups and local officials have pledged to plans 365,000 trees starting this year.

“Water comes not from faucets, but from nature, particularly healthy watersheds,” explains WWF-Philippines project manager Paolo Pagaduan. “Given current trends of deforestation, we might face a future where there isn’t enough water for Filipinos. To secure a clean and reliable source of water, especially during the dry summer months, we need to revitalize our watersheds. No water means no life.”

Working together

It is estimated that for 2020 and 2021, Metro Manila’s water demands will overtake supply by as much as 13% during peak days, meaning more dry faucets and unserved households – but taking care of our life-giving watersheds can avert this.

“We are depleting our natural wealth at an unimaginable rate. While the Philippines is megadiverse, it is also a hotspot given the extent of the threat to our natural environment. There is no one magic bullet that can turn the situation around. We need diverse actors to engage and find diverse solutions. And we need unusual partnerships – which in time will become usual partnerships. GCash, WWF, and DENR are now embarking as one to reduce our carbon footprint and help the Philippines meet its reforestation targets. UNDP through BIOFIN is delighted to bring these actors together to stem the tide on our rapid loss of forest cover,” says UNDP Resident Representative Titon Mitra.

Getting involved

Using their mobile phones, Pinoys can plant trees through GCash Forest, part of a larger programme called GCash for Good. Users earn points by reducing their individual carbon footprint. Paying bills online, for instance, eliminates the need to drive to a bank and consume paper for receipts and forms. More points can be garnered for walking to work, taking the stairs, and avoiding single-use plastic items.

GCash Forest interfaces seamlessly with existing mobile fitness apps to accurately measure not just energy saved, but exactly how much carbon emissions are reduced.

Points are used to nourish virtual trees in GCash Forest. When users reach 20,560 points, his or her virtual tree will be fully-grown. WWF, BIOFIN, GCash, and its allies will then plant the user’s tree species of choice onsite.

“We call on all GCash users to start nurtuting their virtual trees today,” concludes Mabel Niala of Mynt, mother company of GCash. “Our initiative is about more than reforestation or securing vital fresh water for the residents of Metro Manila. It’s about empowering millennials and other mobile users to fight the biggest issues of our era.”

Lungs of the Earth

Planet Earth has roughl three trillion trees, forming the last remaining forests which harbour 80% of all known terrestrial plant and animal species. Forests not only mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing greenhouse gases while releasing life-giving oxygen, but ensure the availability of fresh water, a resource which is becoming scarcer each summer.

Watersheds are zones which naturally collect and store water. They are typically heavily-vegetated because trees absorb rainwater which drains into streams, rivers and lakes. About 60% of the country’s land area comprises our 142 critical watersheds, among the most important familiar of which are Angat, Pantabangan and Caliraya in Luzon, Jalaur in Visayas, and Mt. Apo in Mindanao.

We must do everything we can to conserve our watersheds. We don’ts want our faucets to run dry, do we?

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s January-February 2021 issue.

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