Saturday, March 21, 2009

When are toilets the best way to save endangered fish?

What do you do if there is no traditional environmental solution to an environmental problem? You find a non-environmental solution.

Exhibit A: Lake Miragoâne in Haiti, currently featured in an insightful piece by Conservation International's Alex MacLennan:

If the most effective way to protect fish biodiversity in an endorheic lake is to prevent untreated human waste from flowing into that lake's waters, then build latrines, build a community-level treatment plant.

As Mr. MacLennan writes:
"Whether you are an advocate for people, fish or both – fresh, clean waters must be restored in Lake Miragoâne. Due to its impoverishment, the local community depends too much on the lake to ignore it once waste has washed in. Drinking water comes from the lake. Laundry is washed in the lake. Gourds filled with water and even freshly laundered clothes carry bacteria into people’s homes."
His colleague researcher Mike Smith adds:
"...species conservation and alleviating human misery are not only compatible, they are the same."
The links between safe drinking water for people, sanitation facilities for human waste, and biodiversity conservation haven't been fully explored on the ground. Philosophically, there is little challenge: it is easy to agree at a high level that environmental sustainability initiatives should account for the impact of and on homo sapiens, and it is easy to agree that initiatives providing safe water and sanitation for humans should be implemented in a fashion that impacts positively on the environment. The trick is on the ground - what happens when you have a country manager of a safe drinking water organization who is paid to get water to people, and the country manager of an environmental organization who is paid to protect frogs and trees, and neither is incentivized to broaden the scope of his/her already-challenging work?

The Haitian lake is a good example of where this is playing out on the ground. Daryl Hannah's work with gorillas in Africa is another interesting example. Many groups are undertaking payment for ecosystems services programs. A lot of progress in the right direction, and a lot of creative opportunities still to be explored.

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