Celebrating International Day of Forests: healthy forests maintain healthy waterways

By Dr Ryan Burrows

This Wednesday is the International Day of Forests. Forests are so important for humanity and the planet that the United Nations General Assembly declared that 21 March of each year is to be observed as the International Day of Forests.

Forests have many benefits. They are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial species. Over 1.6 billion humans depend on forests for their livelihoods, food, medicines, fuel, and shelter. But did you also know that they help keep our waterways clean and healthy?

How do healthy forests maintain healthy waterways?

Terrestrial forests. Forested catchments provide humans with 75% of our freshwater needs. In fact, 1 in 3 of the world’s largest cities gets drinking water from forested areas.

Without forested catchments, a city’s drinking water wouldn’t be as clean. Forested catchments generally produce higher quality water than alternative land uses, such as agriculture, industry and urban settlements – because these alternative land uses are associated with pollutants. Forests also regulate soil erosion and reduce the sediment load in rivers and lakes.

A forested watershed in south-east Asia

Mangrove forests. Mangroves help maintain healthy coastal marine ecosystems in tropical and temperate regions. They are home to a large variety of fish, crustacean and mollusc species that are an essential food source for many communities. Mangrove forests also serve as important nurseries for fish larva. Areas where mangroves have been removed often support significantly less fish than nearby areas with mangroves.

The dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments originating from rivers and terrestrial land practices. By filtering out these sediments, mangrove forests can play a huge role in reducing nutrients and sediments from smothering coral reefs and seagrass meadows.

What’s the threat?

Almost 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually on our planet – that’s over twice the size of Ireland. Deforestation comes in many forms, including timber harvesting, fires, degradation due to climate change, and clearing for agriculture.

How can you make a difference?

Make your voice heard. Contact your state or federal political representative and let them know how important forests are for your community– it has worked before. Residents of the city of New York famously voted to protect the forests in their water catchments. New York’s forested catchments now provide high-quality drinking water for tens of millions of people.

Do your part. Participate in local community groups that aim to restore and repair our forested catchments, such as Landcare Australia, a local Natural Resource Management (NRM) group, or your local council.

Spread the word. Tell your family and friends about the importance of forests.

Last of all, go for a wander and enjoy your local forests!

For more information, event details, and resources about International Day of Forests please visit http://www.un.org/en/events/forestsday/index.shtml.

How is research at the Australian Rivers Institute making a difference?

Researchers at the Australian Rivers Institute are working to improve our understanding of the role of forests for protecting the health of our freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Photograph of an Australian Rivers Institute researcher, Dr Ryan Burrows, walking to a study site in the Swedish boreal forest

We have expertise in the following topics:

Planning forest harvesting practices and forested land management to minimise water quality impacts to rivers and coastal marine ecosystems: Dr Ryan Burrows and Dr Chris Brown.

Understanding how riparian plants and vegetation mediate river and lake water quality: Dr Hannah Franklin, Dr Sam Capon, Professor Michele Burford.

Unravelling how forest- and riparian-aquatic linkages influence nutrient dynamics, energy flows, and water quality in rivers and lakes:

Professor Stuart Bunn, Professor Michele Burford, Assoc. Prof. Mark Kennard, Dr Hannah Franklin, Dr Sam Capon, Dr Ryan Burrows.

Quantifying the ability of mangrove forests to reduce nutrient inputs to the Great Barrier Reef: Dr Fernanda Adame.



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