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Bridging research and development to generate science and solutions

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A commonly held view is that trees in landscapes act as evapotranspirators, through which water is transpired and lost. But research now shows that rather than disappearing, this water falls back as rain – either over the same area or elsewhere – in a process dubbed ‘rainfall recycling’.

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) participated in various ways at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, including in a discussion forum titled ‘Rainfall Recycling’ as a Landscape Function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15. The session examined the role of forests in regulating the water cycle and looked at research that suggests vegetation plays a critical role in the frequency and intensity of rainfall. It also explored how this can affect land restoration, water management and climate change adaptation.

“Forests have been long known for having very important influences on climate change through, mainly, the carbon cycle,” said FTA Director Vincent Gitz, who moderated part of the discussion. “What these findings tell us now is that we will need to consider the role of forests on the water cycle, and then the effects on local, regional and continental climates.”

Following the discussion, Gitz spoke about this holistic view of the water cycle, the potential implications of the research on policy and action, as well as FTA’s role as a research-for-development partnership.

What is FTA’s role in research for development?

The Segama River is seen from a viewing area in Sabah, Malaysia. Forests and trees in the water cycle are part of new insights on ‘rainfall recycling’. Photo by Greg Girard/CIFOR

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry is the largest research-for-development partnership to tackle the important issues of the contribution of forests, trees and agroforestry to sustainable development, climate change, addressing food security and working toward sustainable landscapes.

‘Landscape’ is a very wide concept. FTA science encompasses work from genetic resources to livelihoods, value chains, and impacts – including wide, large-scale impacts such as climate change – and how they all interact altogether in a landscape. FTA brings research in development, meaning research that is done with development actors and embedded into development programs, taking into account the needs and the expectations of stakeholders and integrating them in the research being carried forward.

FTA, being a global partnership, brings solutions that are suited to different kinds of situations across the world. And it bridges the world of research and the world of development actors for the cogeneration of science and solutions.

Read more: FTA scientists feature in innovative series of talks on landscapes

How was FTA involved in GLF Bonn 2017? 

FTA provides science and knowledge and an evidence base to discussions between stakeholders here at the GLF on sometimes very difficult issues or very controversial issues. Here at this GLF in Bonn we emphasize three main topics.

The first one is the role of forests and trees in the water cycle, which we call the new science of ‘rainfall recycling’. The second one is about forest landscape restoration and providing a set of solutions to understand what tree to plant where, in which context, and also how agroforestry can help land restoration and promote food security at the same time. The last point is about finance and how finance actors and investments can orient the way value chains impact landscapes, toward sustainable landscapes.

What outcomes did you see from FTA’s discussion forum at GLF?

Clouds pass over homes on the banks of the Belayan River in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The discussion managed to bring stakeholders and policymakers up to date with the latest scientific findings on rainfall recycling, so that they could first learn from the new science but also consider how these elements can be taken on board in the different institutional frameworks they are dealing with, be it water management, forest management or land management.

Vegetation has been known for some time to influence the terrestrial water cycle on the ground – precipitation translating to runoff, the issues of flood control, etc. What is less known is that vegetation and land cover influence the atmospheric part of the water cycle, meaning that there is a kind of a paradigm shift from a situation where trees and forests matter for water-basin management to a situation where trees and forests matter for the management of rainfall at different scales.

It is a different perception of how water is being produced and consumed in an ecosystem and how we can better manage ecosystems for providing water resources to agriculture for climate change adaptation.

Read more: FTA and IUFRO highlight cooperation at Global Landscapes Forum 

What are the implications of these new scientific insights on climate, land, water, and related policies and actions? 

These insights may have important implications for either climate policies, land policies or water policies. Forests have long been known to have very important influences on climate change through, mainly, the carbon cycle. What these findings tell us now is that we will need to consider the role of forests on the water cycle, and then the effects on local, regional and continental climates.

These kinds of discussions at the GLF are important because they help, first, different stakeholders understand the different perspectives on the technical issue, and then also share views and their concerns and expectations amongst themselves.

And one other important point in the GLF is that it is not a formal negotiation forum. So it enables us to distill new ideas, bring innovations to the table, that can then be matured, honed and brought up into other more formal kinds of platforms, either at national level, with government, or at international level, such as at international conventions.

Read more: The Global Landscapes Forum is ‘a movement worth building’

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, originally published by CIFOR’s Forests News


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors

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Generating science and solutions

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Following the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Forests News spoke with CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) Director Vincent Gitz about the program’s involvement in the event. This included a discussion titled ‘Rainfall Recycling’ as a Landscape Function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15, which showed that trees, rather than simply transpiring water, are part of a cycle that results in rainfall.

Originally published by CIFOR

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • FTA and IUFRO highlight cooperation at Global Landscapes Forum 

FTA and IUFRO highlight cooperation at Global Landscapes Forum 

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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Clouds pass over homes on the banks of the Belayan River in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) are strengthening their collaboration to increase understanding and promote the role and value of forests and trees in landscapes. 

At the recent Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Germany, FTA, IUFRO and the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI) organized a Discussion Forum titled Rainfall Recycling as a Landscape Function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15.

The discussion aimed to shed new light on the role of forests and trees in the climate debate, building on a scientific review paper about the relationship between forests and water titled Trees, forests and water: Cool insights for a hot world, and an online symposium organized by FTA in May 2017.

It also discussed preliminary highlights of IUFRO’s current Global Forest Expert Panel (GFEP) on Forests and Water, which is expected to issue a policy relevant global assessment report in July 2018. At the GLF, participants discussed how these research findings should be reflected in policy making.

“We are going to discuss something that might have the potential to change the narrative […] about forests and trees in landscapes in relation to climate change, land management and other issues,” IUFRO Executive Director Alexander Buck said in opening the session.

“In many parts of the world, local people, if you ask them, are convinced that forests and trees not only depend on rainfall, but they also play a critical role in actually generating it,” Buck added.

He explained that science is increasingly generating insights that confirm this perception from local people, describing rainfall recycling as “a phenomenon in which forests […] and trees influence the transport of water over distant locations.”

“Experts will also present some emerging highlights from a global scientific assessment looking at the interactions between forests and water,” Buck added, referring to the GFEP, which is coordinated by IUFRO.

Audience members respond to questions during “Rainfall Recycling as a Landscape Function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15” at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Pilar Valbuena/GLF

The first section of the discussion, looking at scientific insights, was moderated by GFEP cochair Meine van Noordwijk, the lead author of Ecological rainfall infrastructure: investment in trees for sustainable development, who is also known for his work within FTA.

David Ellison, the lead author of the review article Trees, forests and water: cool insights for a hot world, spoke first on the concept of hydrological space. He addressed how water is transported across land, describing continental evapotranspiration as feeding an important share of terrestrial precipitation. Thus, increasing forest cover can lead to increased precipitation and runoff, and spatial organization also matters.

Describing water in the Blue Nile Basin, of which a large share originates in the West African rainforest, he explained why land use, forests and the large-scale water cycle are so important when it comes to rainfall.

Aster Gebrekirstos of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) then discussed tools and equipment that can be used to show how trees play a role in the water cycle.

By measuring isotopes in tree rings it is possible to understand how fast trees have grown in the past, and where the rain absorbed by trees comes from, Gebrekirstos explained. The Amazon was shown to be generating its own rainy season, while in Bolivia more than 50 percent of rain comes from evapotranspiration.

“If we plant trees in Ethiopia, it will have a positive influence in Burkina Faso,” she said, by way of example. “Trees are really contributing to the water cycle, but climate change is also influencing trees and forests.”

“Trees are history books when we are able to analyze their history of growth and isotopes,” Van Noordwijk agreed. “We can tell something about where their water has come from.”

Aida Bargues-Tobella of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, coauthor of Intermediate tree cover can maximize groundwater recharge in the seasonally dry tropics, discussed how, as an alternative to a prevailing paradigm, more trees can improve (and not diminish) groundwater recharge in seasonally dry areas.

Although there are tradeoffs in planting trees in dry areas, Bargues-Tobella showed how new theories enable the determination of an optimum level for tree cover with respect to groundwater recharge, as evidenced in Burkina Faso.

The discussion then progressed to implications that this new science might have for climate, land, water and related policies and actions, in a second part moderated by Paola Ovando Pol of Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, who is also a member of the GFEP on Forests and Water.

In this section, Van Noordwijk stated: “Within the world there’s a lot of debate about climate change, and the convention about climate change is, other than what people think, not a convention about climate. It’s a convention about greenhouse gases, one of the major things that changes climates.”

Panelists discuss forests, trees and the water cycle at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Pilar Valbuena/GLF

Greenhouse gases come from the use of fossil fuel, and also deforestation, he explained.

There is an elaborate framework on how climate change, because of increased greenhouse gases, leads to changes in ocean temperatures, which in turn leads to changes in how much moisture is around, leading to changes in rainfall, he suggested.

Van Noordwijk then explained that forests and trees outside forests also influence rainfall through several feedback loops, from local to continental levels, as evidenced in Latin America, the African continent and Southeast Asia.

With this new knowledge, the relation between climate, forests, water and people looks different, he said. It is not captured in current policy frameworks, but has important consequences.

The “missing middle — the relation between vegetation, forests and rainfall” shows there is a much more direct link between land-use change and rainfall than through the long route of climate change and ocean temperatures, he added. “Now our message to the policymakers is: we have enough evidence that it exists, we’re working on the details.”

Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), posed the question of what forests can do for water and climate. They can promote rain, transfer vapor, recharge groundwater, moderate flooding and cool air, he suggested.

The world needs a new way of governing forests, he said, citing watershed approaches, links to climate objectives such as REDD+, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), as well as sustainable forest management.

Rounding out the second part, senior researcher Holger Hoff of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) said the link to policies was the new aspect of the work. He covered how to add to existing frameworks, targeting methods to audiences, triggering action, identifying win-wins and increasing complexity.

Finally, in the third and final part of the discussion, FTA Director Vincent Gitz asked the audience “who can do what” with this knowledge, in terms of optimizing the contribution of forests and trees to the regulation of the water cycle, increasing resilience and therefore providing ways for landscapes – and the people in them – to adapt to climate change.

In a lively audience discussion, various points were raised about the respective roles of different actors. Science and research have a special responsibility in terms of being clear about domains of uncertainty, especially when quantification of effects is concerned.

Research has a role in clearly explaining science, as well as its limits, to policymakers. Science also needs to be clear about knowledge gaps. These include, for instance, whether there are different effects for different tree species (especially indigenous species), and about the range of scale of these effects.

“It is all about better understanding these ecosystem services, giving them proper value, finding ways to account for them in current incentives and regulation schemes, and creating spaces for them in policy debates,” Gitz said following the forum.

The next step for this science-policy interaction will be the release of IUFRO’s GFEP report on forests and water in July, and upcoming discussions about the Sustainable Development Goals in New York.

Read more:

By Vincent Gitz, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), and Alexander Buck, Executive Director of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO). 


This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • ‘Rainfall recycling’ as a landscape function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15

‘Rainfall recycling’ as a landscape function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15

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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

The ‘Rainfall recycling’ as a landscape function: Connecting SDGs 6, 13 and 15 Discussion Forum was held at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) Bonn on Dec. 19, 2017.

Climate change is a reality and, for those most affected by it, it is often experienced as a change in the most basic commodity: water. Drawing on the insights of farmers and local communities, this session examines the role of forests in regulating the water cycle.

New research suggests that vegetation plays a critical role in the frequency and intensity of rainfall. This discussion forum will explore the implications on the many areas affected by these effects — land restoration, water management and climate change adaptation — toward an integrated approach for land/water and climate for the SDGs.

The discussion forum will build on a successful online symposium that took place in May 2017. The discussion will also discuss highlights of the current Global Forest Expert Panel (GFEP) on forests and water, which is expected to issue a policy relevant global assessment report in the first half of 2018.

The session was hosted by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI).

This video was originally published by the GLF.


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