Seeing the Forests for the Water: Restoring the Ipo Watershed

January, 15 2023

While the forest cover has improved over the past several years through consistent and hard work, there are still many areas that need to be rehabilitated.
The image features an aerial shot of the Ipo Watershed on a cloudy day. Overlooking the mountains lush with greenery is a wide river in between hills connecting to the Ipo Dam in the distance.
The rehabilitation project of the Ipo Watershed contributes to the water security of Metro Manila. Photo © WWF-Philippines

Protecting and restoring the forests of the Philippines has benefits in addition to fighting climate change. While not always in the public perception, forests play a major role in maintaining the supply of fresh water to Filipinos which is why they are key to the long-term conservation of the Ipo Watershed.

In his first State of the Nation Address, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that the Philippines is “one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change” despite being a developing country with a smaller carbon footprint than developed nations.

The president called on rehabilitating and improving our precarious fresh water supply systems and added that renewable energy is a top priority. The watershed’s rehabilitation is of strategic importance to Metro Manila with more than 90% of freshwater coming from the watershed.

The link between forests and water

The image shows two staff members of WWF-Philippines filing in a line as they climb out of a creek in the forest.
WWF-Philippines staff walk through a small creek while conducting a site visit at the Ipo Watershed. Photo: © WWF-Philippines

The importance of trees in improving the quality of air is clear for many people but not so much the critical link between forests and water. A watershed is an area of land that allows water to drain into a nearby body of water like rivers or lakes. The Philippines experiences around 20 tropical cyclones every year making heavy rains and flooding regular occurrences.

While the natural behavior of water is to flow on the soil surface and down towards the river, the extensive root system of trees direct water into the ground and become absorbed by the soil like a sponge. By planting more trees and sustainably managing forests, water can be better absorbed in healthy forest soil.

During hot dry months, the water stored in the soil at the watershed slowly seeps out into the river ensuring that the water supply is constant and stable. If there are not enough trees, more water will simply flow over the soil and directly into the river then out to the sea instead of being stored for a later time.

One of the biggest threats to the economy is water shortage—a lack of freshwater will have significant adverse impacts on farming and manufacturing processes. Freshwater is a finite resource that we cannot live without but its protection has been long neglected. Preserving and protecting our most important resource is key to a sustainable future. There has been a 30% loss of freshwater ecosystems since 1970 according to studies by scientists. Restoring the Ipo Watershed and other freshwater supplies is both an urgent and important step for our survival.

Partnership for rehabilitation

An aerial shot of the side of a mountain at the watershed facing the Ipo Dam.
The Ipo Watershed is home to the indigenous Dumagat tribe who serve as the bantay gubat or forest rangers. Photo: © WWF-Philippines

In 2016, the Manila Water Company, Inc. looked for partners for their reforestation activities at the Ipo Watershed and to assist the local Dumagat communities. The many denuded areas of the forests is also a key concern for the Dumagat tribe that live inside the Ipo Watershed. Recognizing the Ipo Watershed’s significant role in Metro Manila’s water security, WWF-Philippines started the Forests for Water program in partnership with the local Dumagat community to restore the forests and improve the watershed.

Members of the Dumagat tribe take care of the forests and protect it from loggers who cut down trees to sell as lumber. Being local residents makes them the best stewards of their environment and also allows them to give their recommendations on how to best safeguard the forests.

The Dumagat tribe’s intuitive connection to their ancestral land was combined with scientific environmental protection practices to help in the rehabilitation of the Ipo Watershed. They conduct surveys, patrols, and serve as guides to the forest. They are the frontliners against activities that harm the watershed as a whole.

While the forest cover has improved over the past several years through consistent and hard work, there are still many areas that need to be rehabilitated. Continuing the project and the partnership with the Dumagat will be vital for the full restoration of the watershed and the security of the water supply for millions of Filipinos in Metro Manila.

The image features two fishing boats manned by three local residents parked in the shallow waters of a river at the Ipo Watershed.
The Dumagat forest rangers traversing the river in the Ipo Watershed. Photo © WWF-Philippines / Alo Lantin

The bottomline

We have the potential to reverse the damages inflicted on nature but it takes collective effort. Protecting forests and restoring tree cover is not enough to ensure our future. Preserving our freshwater ecosystems and environment-conscious infrastructure planning are essential as well as promoting low-carbon lifestyles.

Partnerships between conservation organizations, indigenous communities, and the government are vital for crafting and implementing long-term solutions through policies that integrate sustainable water practices. It is everyone's responsibility to share water resources and ensure access to clean water for all.