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How can urban utilities work with upstream communities?

Last week I had the pleasure to attend an event organized by Our Water Commons called Urban Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together. The event took place in a beautiful place called Blue Mountain Center in New York State.Participants from Latin America and the US discussed the relevance of engaged water utilities in improving watershed management upstream. Albert Appleton, Former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System, shared with us his firsthand experience which was truly inspiring. When Appleton became director of NYC Water and Sewer System he inherited a big problem: the system was being pushed to build an expensive filtration system due to the increasing water quality problems. However, Appleton was convinced that it made much more sense to stop pollution at its source than clean up the water afterwards. This very simple principle is almost always ignored and technical and expensive “solutions” are very frequently done. Appleton engaged with farmers in the region to make changes that would benefit both farmers and city dwellers. These improvements in family farms were voluntary and planned by the farmers, but paid by the water system because it ultimately meant better water quality and huge savings (avoiding the need to build the filtration plant). This program has been a huge success. We heard and discussed other experiences. For instance, in Ecuador, the protection of watersheds has been done through different instruments including buying land in the catchment area to reserve for conservation purposes. However, in places like Oaxaca, Mexico, the case was made on how governments continue to promote unsustainable and expensive (although profitable for a few) solutions such as dams, instead of promoting integral solutions that would conserve water through watershed management. In the case of Peru, there was concern in how could a water system guarantee water quality when toxic mining is taking place at water sources. We had very interesting discussions regarding the question of governance and how “one size fits all” solutions are not viable. We recognized that after many years of struggle there is at least acknowledgement that watershed management is indispensable to address our water challenges. For me, the most important message is how a city’s water system has an obligation towards the communities upstream and how it can promote positive change in them. If this very simple idea was taken into consideration more often, I think we would have a different urban rural relationship and many less water problems in the cities. Read more about the New York City water protection program here.