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Can an ecosystem service approach strengthen river conservation?

May 2, 2014
River Ribble, Lancashire.  Image: RSJ

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: RSJ

Worldwide efforts to conserve river ecosystems are failing, and new approaches for stronger conservation planning are required.  This is the underlying context of a new editorial ‘Rebalancing the philosophy of river conservation’ by Mars scientist Steve Ormerod in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  Ormerod suggests that the ecosystem service approach can offer a valuable addition to current river conservation strategies, potentially providing convincing new arguments to help halt freshwater biodiversity loss.

Growing human populations are putting increasing pressure on freshwater ecosystems globally: altering and fragmenting river flows; abstracting water for agriculture, sanitation and drinking; and releasing unprecedented amounts of pollutants into freshwaters.  As David Strayer and David Dudgeon outlined in a 2010 paper, despite freshwater ecosystems occupying less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, they support around 10% of all known global species.

As well as being hotspots for biodiversity, freshwaters are often focal points for human development, the negative effects of which – pollution, overfishing, flow fragmentation – mean that freshwater species are more threatened than those in marine or land environments.  Many key threats to freshwater ecosystems are generated at the river catchment scale, where the interactions (and potential intensifications) of ecological stresses caused by pollutants from agricultural and urban development are not fully understood (as Ormerod previously wrote in 2010).

Industrial River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: Blog Preston

Industrial River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: Blog Preston

However, the picture isn’t necessarily bleak.  In this new editorial, Ormerod argues that the ecosystem services approach to managing nature – where the benefits provided by an ecosystem are valued in explicitly human terms rather than on an ethical basis – has the potential to strengthen and reinvigorate river conservation management.

The basis of the ecosystem service argument is that well-functioning ecosystems are fundamental to human livelihoods.  However, many ecosystem services – food and fuel production, flood regulation and water supply to name a few – are undervalued, or regarded as ‘public goods’, by the models that structure global economic development.

In this context, ecosystem services are framed by some conservationists as a powerful means of convincing people, institutions and governments of the value of the natural world under the logic of economic and social self-interest.  In other words, I might be motivated to conserve nature, not necessarily because of any ethical arguments, but because of the benefits nature provides to me and my livelihood.  As a result, the approach has gained traction to become one of the dominant themes of conservation policy in recent years.

Ormerod suggests that this ‘enlightened self-interest’ is likely to provide a stronger basis for both citizens and policy makers to become more motivated to conserve rivers.  This approach may have the potential to provide common ground for individuals and institutions across catchments and river basins to collaborate in planning conservation, a particularly valuable asset given the numerous competing concerns of stakeholders along a river’s course.

Ormerod’s argument is that the ecosystem service approach can sit as an addition to existing river conservation approaches – broadly described as ‘protect the best, restore the rest‘ – where healthy, diverse ecosystems are conserved, and those that are polluted or degraded are restored as far as possible.  This existing approach is ingrained in European policies such as the Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive.

New approaches to conservation policy?  Image:  Europa JRC

New approaches to conservation policy? Image: Europa JRC

Water supply from river ecosystems is undoubtedly one of most indispensable ecosystem services.  Given that rivers are hotspots for biodiversity, human development and ecosystem services, if the ecosystem service approach has the potential to strengthen conservation planning anywhere, then river ecosystems seem a likely candidate for success.

According to a 2011 paper Ormerod co-authored with Edward Maltby for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (link opens as zipped download), evidence is emerging from rivers and their catchments that conservation priorities based on biodiversity conservation and ecosystem service provision may not be mutually exclusive.

In other words, the ecosystem service approach may help strengthen conservation efforts by providing convincing arguments for a range of users, land owners and policy makers to make decisions which not only serve their social and economic self-interest, but also help avert biodiversity loss.

Ormerod’s point is that the approach has been under-applied to freshwater conservation, and given the wide range of important ecosystem services that rivers provide, may well help provide new and convincing arguments for their conservation.  New tools in a toolkit of strategies to help halt biodiversity loss.

Zebra mussels.  Image: Wikipedia

Zebra mussels. Image: Wikipedia

However, there are numerous considerations to be addressed.  The ecosystem service approach to conserving nature has drawn criticism on both practical and philosophical grounds.   It is argued that the approach supports the conservation of those species that provide notable and financial benefits to humans and ignores those that do not.  As Kent Redford and Bill Adams pointed out in a 2009 Conservation Biology editorial, zebra mussels are far better at filtering pollutants out of water than any ‘native’ UK species – should we therefore prioritise their (non-native, invasive) populations for the ecosystem services they provide?

Similarly, if we value nature only for its potential utilitarian worth, are we not missing the reasons – ethics, curiosity, beauty, wonder – why most people are motivated to care about and conserve the natural world?  Can species and ecosystems really be reduced and appropriately catalogued into commodities?  Can they be accurately mapped, and what about the effects of geographical scale on their provision?  Does their provision benefit everyone across society, or are there those who remain marginalised? How will planning for ecosystem services be affected by climate change?

These are debates to continue more fully in another post.  For now, we’d be interested to hear your thoughts, comments and feedback on Steve’s paper.

Fundamentally, there are (at least) two major questions arising from the paper.  First, how can the ecosystem service approach help strengthen freshwater conservation?  Second, can the priorities of ecosystem service based approaches to river conservation be integrated and ‘rebalanced’ with existing biodiversity-orientated approaches?  If so, how?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2014 10:50

    Those of you who remember me will find it no surprise that I read this editorial with interest, despite the paywall.

    Omerod himself summarises exactly my reaction to his editorial when he admits that “none of this is without major challenge and much of the current evidence is frail”. Let’s look at his “powerful conservation arguments” one by one.

    1. Our existing conservation efforts are clearly failing.

    First, this premise is faulty. You cannot jump from “we continue to lose biodiversity” to “therefore conservation is failing” in this way, any more than you could jump from “our sweet shop continues to lose money” to “therefore the anti-pilfering devices are clearly failing”. Next, where is the evidence? Where is the evidence that the situation would be in any sense better without those conservation efforts? Where is the evidence that in the areas where “conservation efforts” have been made, they are clearly failing?

    2. Pressures on the world’s river catchments and their drainage are growing dramatically… without further incentives for protection there are risks that they will be worse in future.

    The first statement is true, but here the premise in the second is that “further incentives for protection” will somehow alleviate those risks. The evidence for that assertion is lacking. People are not stupid. In the greenhouses near Naivasha in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the workers and their families know that the charcoal they use for cooking has come from the ancient cedar forests that once stabilised the steep sides of the rift and provided clean water. The forests are gone, and the bush-meat with it, the soil is eroding, the water has dried up. “What can we do? We have to eat. If we are to eat, we must cook. And the forest provides the ecosystem services of cedar wood which makes excellent charcoal.”

    3. There is power in the argument that ecosystems cannot be exploited and degraded at any cost when we depend upon them so fundamentally for life support.

    Easter Island comes to mind. From the Anasazi to the Zimbabweans, societies have seen that they are exploiting and degrading ecosystems on which they fundamentally depend, and have gone on doing so until their civilization withered. If, however, there is indeed power in the argument, then there should be some evidence of calamity avoided when a civilization noticed it was degrading an ecosystem on which it depended. Is there any?

    4a. The political case for conservation based on ethical grounds does not have universal traction and may well be diminishing.

    Two points here – first, where is the evidence? Second, in democracies, politicians are elected, and at least nominally do what the electorate wants at least some of the time. If the electorate does not want conservation, then there is not a lot we, in democracies, can do about it except depend on our policy makers to over-ride public will when morality requires. As an analogy, no EU state has the death penalty for any crime, though at various times anecdotal evidence at least suggests that majorities in most of them have been in favour, if only for particularly nasty crimes. And if the politicians we have elected will not maintain conservation efforts on ethical grounds, then we can after all, in Charles Dana’s words, “turn the rascals out.”

    4b. Some of the biggest … opportunities may arise where society takes action independently of government for the greater good with ecosystem service protection a potential tool for social change.

    This vision would benefit from a full stop before the bit about ecosystem services. There are many alternatives, and the jury hasn’t even begun to discuss whether the concept of ecosystem services is a potential tool for social change.

    5a. For rivers, the benefits to conservation of ecosystem service models are particularly strong.

    To whom or what do those benefits accrue? If, as the editorial suggests, they are to accrue to biodiversity, where is the evidence that the provision of an ecosystem service leads to the conservation of any particular element of biodiversity that would not have been conserved in the absence of someone receiving a service?

    5b. The ecosystem services approach offers a tool for improved environmental accounting in river catchments.

    This assertion does not seem to follow from what went before, nor does it appear to be supported by any evidence. Besides, it is far from clear how an ecosystem services approach would offer any benefit for environmental accounting that would not be offered by an ecosystem approach.

    6. There are positive relationships among biodiversity, ecosystem quality and ecosystem services that illustrate how the needs of conservation and human utility can, indeed, be harmonized.

    Unfortunately the verb “harmonized” acts as a portfolio verb in this sentence and hence (as is the purpose of portfolio verbs) makes meaning unclear, so it is hard to critique the idea. But in which direction are these supposed relationships? Does “better” biodiversity lead to “better” ecosystem services, or do “better” ecosystem services lead to “better” biodiversity? If the former, pisciculture seems to be an obvious counter-example. If the latter, where is the evidence?

    7. Applying the ecosystem services concept to water allows nature conservationists to make a major, global, contribution to the pursuit of social justice, intergenerational equity and a sustainable future.

    Wishful thinking has no place in such a crucial debate, especially where “scientific” advice is so keenly sought by policy makers. For this reason, evidence in support of such an assertion, derived from properly constructed scientific inquiry, is crucially important.

    Ecosystem services are touted as a global cure-all for our global conservation ailments. What conservationists and policy makers therefore need, and rather urgently, is a substantial and well-thought through scientific study that carefully constructs an hypothesis consistent with what we know (rather than what we would like to be the case), makes predictions from it, and tests those predictions using a well-designed protocol under a wide variety of conditions across the globe. We do not, however, need more hand-waving.

    Unfortunately I find this editorial to be an example of unscientific thinking that neither examines carefully the “major challenges” to the concept that “ecosystem services will help to conserve biodiversity”, nor provides evidence, frail or robust, one way or the other.

  2. May 7, 2014 10:03

    Thanks for such an indepth response Martin.

    For those who didn’t see your post on ecosystem services last year, the link is here:

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