Gauteng and NW Province

Natural capital can save cities billions

Alex Morales

A swamp that filters sewage from Uganda’s capital Kampala is providing ammunition for Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and lawmakers from at least 86 nations seeking ways to save oceans and the atmosphere.

The Nakivubo swamp, where wastewater flows from the city toward Lake Victoria, provides as much as $1.75 million (R14.3m) a year in purification services. Without it, Kampala would need a sewage plant costing at least $2m a year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The findings helped prod the city into protecting the area.

“Economic logic prevailed” said Pavan Sukhdev, a former Deutsche Bank economist who in 2010 led a UN report on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. “It’s going to cost $2m per year to do what the swamp was doing for free, and they don’t have that money.”

Lawmakers and economists converging on a UN conference in Rio de Janeiro, which began on Wednesday, are trying to convince 130 world leaders to place a value on nature, moving beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as the usual measure of national well-being.

From Uganda’s swamps to New York’s water supply in the Catskill Mountains, it’s already happening around the world.
Supported by Stiglitz and an estimate from the World Bank that “natural capital” stored in forests, reefs and glaciers is worth $44 trillion, they’re encouraging authorities to take into account the value of water retention, air-scrubbing and coastal protection provided by trees, soil and reefs.

When countries don’t consider their natural resources, “it’s like grading a corporation based on one day’s cash flow and forgetting to depreciate assets and other costs”, Stiglitz said in the World Bank’s report “A Smarter GDP,” this month.

If adopted, the measures could affect planning decisions for projects from new drinks-bottling plants to oil pipelines, power stations, mines and canals.

On the Rio+20 agenda are 80 pages of recommendations on how to preserve the diversity of plants, eradicate poverty, protect oceans and clean the air as the population swells 29 percent to 9 billion by 2050.

The Sunday Times
June 24 2012

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