A living, breathing forest

Lucy McHugh/CIFOR

Lucy McHugh/CIFOR

By Tim Christophersen (UNEP). Originally published by Thomson Reuters.

Have you ever walked into a forest and felt its immediate cooling and calming effect? Have you ever marveled at a large and old tree and wondered how much longer than you it has been around? No wonder that forests are deeply intertwined with many nation’s history and mythologies, and trees crown the banknotes of many of the world’s currencies.

Forests cover almost one third of all land, and there are more than 400 trees for every woman, man and child on the planet, a stunning 3 trillion trees in total. And we are lucky to have them. For these forests provide us with much of what we need to live healthy and fulfilled lives.They provide us with oxygen, clean water, timber for our homes, and paper for our books. They allow us to relax and recharge through long forest walks. They can protect us from avalanches, floods and storms. And they are a place called home for over 300 million indigenous peoples world-wide.

The World is celebrating the International Day of Forests today on 21 March. This year, the focus of the International Day is on the important role that forests play in filtering, cleaning and producing water. Indeed, forests act as giant sponges which absorb heavy and long rainfall and give it back as a constant trickle of clean water which has been filtered by porous forest soil. Recent research reveals they also ‘produce’ water: forests increase the amount of rainfall that falls over a certain area.

How this works is still poorly understood, but it is clear that the evapotranspiration, which is the amount of rainwater that is fed back into the atmosphere from forest leaves and stems, recycles cloud cover and thus keeps a ‘hydrological pump’ going, which itself attracts more clouds over hundreds of kilometres. Estimates are that the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, the Amazon forest, produces enough rainfall to feed most of the agriculture of South America, and it sends that rainfall southwards all year round through flying rivers of clouds which have formed over large, intact forest blocks, where millions of trees together evaporate billions of litres of water every day.

Globally, forested watersheds and wetlands supply 75 percent of the world’s accessible fresh water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological needs. And about one-third of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forested watersheds, including Nairobi, the city where I live.

So let us take a moment to celebrate forests and their life-giving quality to supply clean water. We should be conscious of their role, because forests are under threat. Already, almost 8 out of 10 people in the world are exposed to high levels of threat of water insecurity, including in areas where this was thought impossible just a few years ago, like California, or Sao Paulo in Brazil. These water insecurities are expected to intensify with climate change.

At this time, we cannot afford to lose a single forest. Yet, more than 3 million hectares of forests, and area the size of Belgium, are cut down each year and converted to other land-uses, mostly in the tropics. What can we do to turn the tide of forest loss?

Reasons for Optimism

There are some reasons to be optimistic. The landmark Paris Agreement at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change clearly recognizes the central role forests play for successfully combatting and adapting to climate change. A mechanism known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) encourages developing countries through financial incentives to better manage, conserve or restore their forests.

The United Nations is already working with 64 developing countries to initiate sweeping reforms on land-use to successfully reduce deforestation and forest degradation. At the same time, we are getting much better at monitoring the world’s forests. Platforms like Global Forest Watch provide near real-time, satellite based information about deforestation across the world, even in the most remote tropical regions.

Finally, for the first time in history, humanity has a universal, comprehensive plan for sustainable development until the year 2030. The ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, as the plan is known, was adopted in September 2015 at the UN headquarters by the largest-ever gathering of Heads of States. The health of our soil and forests, the quality of our water and air, and the stability of our climate are at the centre of the 17 Goals.

What You Can Do

If you want to contribute to achieving these goals and protect forests, remember to consume with care. Agriculture is the main driver of deforestation. Eating less meat is one of the key measures all of us can take to reduce our global ‘foodprint’. And almost one third of all food that is produced globally goes to waste, almost 1.3 billion tons of food worth over 1 trillion US dollars. Being conscious of the amount of food we waste, and trying to reduce the waste can help to save forests, and it will definitely save you money.

Let the International Days of Forests and Water inspire you to plant a tree: find a spot where you can plant an indigenous tree, sourced from a reliable tree nursery, or plant a seedling you have grown yourself from a tree seed. Organize tree-planting events together with your community, your urban green space authority, your school, or your local forester. It will provide you with a lifelong reminder of your impact for a better future, and give you a wonderful experience for the whole family.