The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission was part of the observation of International Day of Forests and World Water Day this March 2022. The United Nations General Assembly declared March 21 the International Day of Forests (IDF) in 2012, and March 22 World Water Day (WWD) in 1993. These global annual observances bring awareness to the importance of all types of forests and freshwater resources for sustainable development.
The theme for International Day of Forests this year is “Forests and sustainable production and consumption.” One-third of the Earth’s landmass is covered by forests, and they perform important ecosystem functions, serve as homes to over 80% of terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects, and are the source of livelihood, fuel, medicine, food, and shelter to many populations. Additionally, forests have the potential to absorb and store about one-tenth of the global anthropogenic carbon emissions projected for the first half of this century into their biomass, soils, and products (Brack, 2018), and therefore provide a nature-based solution to climate change mitigation.
In spite of their importance, there is historic evidence of indiscriminate clearing and unsustainable use of forest resources. Forests within the OECS region have faced considerable changes over time. Degradation and loss from demographic changes and unsustainable agricultural practices pervade the Eastern Caribbean region, a release from the OECS Secretariat states. The demands for wood for export, construction, furniture, crafts, and wood fuel, including charcoal, also contribute to the clearing of forests. In order to satisfy the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of the present and future generations, there is a need for sustainable production and consumption of forest resources.
The connection between water and forests is not often made, however, it is prudent to recognize that forest ecosystems serve as sources for over three-quarters of the world’s renewable water supply (FAO, IUFRO, and USDA, 2021). The importance of water for all was recognized by the 2030 Development Agenda through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. The celebration of World Water Day is one of the key efforts to supporting the achievement of this goal. The inextricable link between forests and freshwater resources is illustrated in the fact that trees require a consistent supply of water for healthy growth, while forests assist in increasing the availability of water and in regulating water flows, including the provision of water-related ecosystem services such as flood and soil erosion protection. Both forests and freshwater resources, therefore, play critical roles in poverty eradication (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), gender equality (SDG 5), sustainability of cities and human settlement (SDG 11), combating climate change (SDG 13), and protecting terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15).
Special attention this year for World Water Day is given to the recognition of an invisible resource, groundwater, which has a visible impact. Groundwater provides almost half of the drinking water worldwide, about 40% of water for irrigated agriculture, and about one-third of the water supply required for industry (International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre, 2018). Groundwater is often hidden in underground aquifers, permeable rocks, and other geological formations. It is usually extracted through pumping and natural recharge takes place by rainfall, snow, or by seepage from lakes or rivers. Groundwater may also discharge naturally to the surface, for example, emerging as natural springs, or contributing to rivers and wetlands. This interconnectivity between groundwater and surface water is particularly important to sustaining rivers and streams, and healthy aquatic ecosystems during droughts.
Some countries within the OECS region are reliant on both surface water and groundwater for potable, agricultural and industrial purposes. Threats to surface water resources due to higher evaporation rates caused by increased temperatures and increased periods of low rainfall have resulted in the domestic and agricultural water supply being supplemented by groundwater sources in countries where it is easily accessible. However, these groundwater sources are also at risk of increased salinity due to rising sea levels, and pollution from human activities such as poor agricultural practices and disposal of untreated and unregulated sewage. Unfortunately, due to the realization of these negative impacts in some OECS countries, seawater or brackish (slightly salty) groundwater must undergo a costly desalination process to become clean, usable water for the respective populations.
Emerging research regarding the importance and value of ecosystem services provided by healthy forest and aquatic ecosystems has brought to light the need to move towards more sustainable practices in the use and management of forests and water resources. It is necessary to restore balance in the use of these resources as we seek to adapt to climate change while responding to the needs of a growing population. The OECS points out in the release that the recognition of the importance of the connection between forests and ground and surface water resources, as well as resource monitoring and responsible use, play crucial roles towards achieving water security, sustainable forest management, and climate resilience throughout the region.