Fellow Since 2006
This description of Marta Echavarría's work was prepared when Marta Echavarría was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Marta Echavarría has created a model for establishing water markets among traditionally non-cooperating upstream and downstream users, across public and private lines, which finance sustainable watershed management and conservation.
The New Idea
Marta is designing water protection mechanisms in Latin America by having public and private upstream and downstream water users voluntarily agree to pay above the tariff price to finance watershed protection activities aimed at keeping clean water flowing well into the future, as well as to protect biodiversity. As clean, accessible, and abundant water is threatened by agriculture, urban development and weak public regulations, Marta’s water markets attach a monetary (and environmental) value to water according to the current and future needs of diverse user groups. This “price tag” for water enables farmers, environmentalists, water companies, electric companies, and the government to better understand the value of water, which was historically acquired without cost. With a price agreed to by the user groups based on willingness to pay, the diverse actors can more effectively negotiate the sustainable management of the watershed and the efficient and just distribution of the resource. Marta has facilitated the establishment of water user associations, which put an economic value on the environmental services provided by a healthy watershed and encourage necessary investments in watershed sustainability. She has shown how water can be a powerful unifying force bringing together public and private upstream and downstream communities and users toward a common environmental, economic, and social cause.
Clean water and the natural ecosystems that provide it are becoming are increasingly threatened. Human water use tripled from 1950 to 1990, but this escalating water use is meeting limits. Projections of population size and water use per person suggest that humans could be using at least 70 percent of accessible runoff in 2025—possibly all of it. Despite all the global, national and local efforts, deforestation rates are not decreasing and forest cover is dwindling – all with direct effects on the world’s water sources.Historically, users have been unwilling to pay more than market price to ensure water quality and flow for other watershed users or future generations. The conventional market price has not taken into account the high environmental costs associated with sustainable water management which could help prevent the inefficient loss of the valuable water resource. These factors have been exacerbated by unregulated development of water-dependent activities which threaten the ecological balance of watersheds, as well as the long term viability of water supply and quality. Given that cities, farmers, water companies, and electric companies, among others, have never had to pay the real price of their consumption and have had no limits on their demand, water flows are reducing, as well as the indirect benefits of a healthy water flow, such as power generating capacities. Water quality is going down, soils are being eroded and decertified, and aquatic life is being lost. These phenomena have negative impacts on the communities who get their fish from the streams, the farmers who irrigate their fields with water from the rivers, the cities whose drinking water comes from these distant watersheds, as well as on the companies whose economic success derives from the water’s abundance and quality. As long as there is no concerted effort among all of the diverse water user groups to revolutionize the predominant watershed management model, and as water supplies continue to be degraded, there is potential for extreme social, economic, and environmental conflict.
Marta is proposing a new model for achieving sustainable watershed management based on recognizing the real value of water among the diverse user groups through voluntary water markets. The three critical elements of Marta’s strategy are creating “uncomfortable alliances” around watershed management among public and private groups, establishing a private fund for sustainable and non-partisan financing of watershed management initiatives, and coordinating a strategic watershed conservation plan with the participation of upstream and downstream users. Marta began to realize the strength behind this model when she first put it to the test in the Cauca Valley, Colombia, where she promoted and implemented a simple watershed management scheme among sugar cane growers. She found that the key was convincing the upstream and downstream users of their mutual interest in maintaining healthy water flow and that it was in their economic interest to pay currency for value they received from this “environmental service.” Since her initial experience in the Cauca Valley, Marta is convinced her model works, as are those who benefit from it. First, the model entails bringing together traditionally non-cooperating groups to support a common goal of protecting the watershed—the downstream consumers and the upstream watershed caretakers, as well as private, public, and social sector groups. She refers to these as necessary, albeit “uncomfortable” alliances. In Quito, she was able to mastermind cooperation between the Mayor’s Office, the Quito Municipal Sewage and Water Agency (EMAAP-Q) it’s more than 2 million water users, the Electrical Utility of Quito (EEQ), upstream rural agriculturalists and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Second, a fund is created in a private entity with monies from the user groups paying voluntary fees, according to their level of use. The money collected from these “payments for environmental services” is used for watershed protection planning and activities. All of the actors collectively manage the fund with no one interest (e.g., the State) being the majority. This facilitates transparency of the fund, while the fund itself helps ensure the continuity of the projects. In Quito, the Fund (FONAG) is currently valued at more than US$3 million and is protected by an 80 year contract. Marta emphasizes the importance of the Fund’s slow growth and long-term protection for allowing the project to adapt and expand its range of action over time—a factor most watershed conservation efforts have failed to take into account. Finally, individual conservation initiatives are joined and financed by the Fund, making the overall watershed management process more efficient and integral. This establishes a multi-sectoral mechanism allowing all of the players to discuss and act on the mutual interest of sustained and healthy water flows. The technical knowledge of watershed functioning is critical for guiding conservation projects, while political lobbying is fundamental for achieving cooperation and consensus. In order to promote widespread implementation of her water market model, Marta has systematized her experiences through various media, including a step-by-step manual for establishing water-based finance mechanisms. However, the positive results from her work have been the most effective means for disseminating her idea and strategy. The success of Marta’s work can be seen throughout Latin America. The initial pilot of the Sugar Cane Growers Association resulted in more abundant and higher quality water, in the short term, and continues today as a mechanism for ensuring sustainability; it has since been adopted by 12 other Associations throughout the Cauca Valley. In Ecuador, the FONAG continues to grow and provide stable funding and direction for watershed management, in spite of extreme political instability. Her model is being replicated in Cuenca and Loja, Ecuador; and Guatemala; some being undertaken without her direct assistance. TNC has adopted Marta’s model for their Andean Program; with her assistance and direct involvement.
Marta grew up in a socially active family in Colombia, but was the first in her family to be environmentally focused. At Brown University she received her Master of Arts in Sustainable Development and Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies. At the time, the Environmental Studies program was exclusively focused on domestic issues in the U.S. Through Marta’s initiative, international environmental cases became part of the Brown curriculum. The holistic focus and applied approach to solving environmental problems at Brown strongly influenced Marta’s work in Colombia. When she returned to her native country 15 years ago, she was hired to design an environmental management program for the Sugar Cane Growers Association in the Cauca Valley. She developed the program to improve production processes, taking into account important environmental, social, and economic factors, which perpetuated the traditional burn-and-harvest methods threatening the sector’s sustainability. She faced an uphill battle being an outsider (from Medellin and working in Cali), a woman and an environmentalist. But her design proved so convincing to the Association that these other factors were set aside, as they hired Marta to implement her program. This was her first real-world application of the water protection mechanism being implemented throughout Latin America. In the Cauca Valley, Marta helped establish user associations among the cane growers that financed watershed maintenance and aimed to make water distribution and use more efficient. After working 5 years in the Cauca Valley and establishing an impressive track record, Marta, moved to Ecuador without a job, but quickly established herself and acquired financial stability through her entrepreneurial abilities; creating two businesses that enabled her to dedicate herself to establishing water protection mechanisms throughout the region. Today, Marta’s issue is water and she looks forward to expanding her model. There is little doubt that her natural energy and enthusiasm about her work, combined with her technical knowledge and holistic focus, will continue to facilitate the uneasy partnerships necessary to make her model the standard watershed management model across the world.