Key Messages

The concept of ecosystem services has been developed to aid understanding of the human use and management of natural resources. Our health and wellbeing depends upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components: water, soil, nutrients and organisms. Therefore, ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources utlilised by humans such as clean air, water, food and materials. They can be defined in various ways, but the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment classifies ecosystem services as:

  • Supporting services:  The services that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services including soil formation, photosynthesis, primary production, nutrient cycling and water cycling.
  • Provisioning services:  The products obtained from ecosystems, including food, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals, ornamental resources and fresh water;
  • Regulating services:  The benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes, including air quality regulation, climate regulation, water regulation, erosion regulation, water purification, disease regulation, pest regulation, pollination, natural hazard regulation;
  • Cultural services:  The non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation and aesthetic experiences – thereby taking account of landscape values;

In the context of poverty alleviation, ecosystem services research and management is about natural capital supporting the lives of the poor. It offers a holistic view that allows us to understand trade-offs and synergies, both short and long term, on how landscapes can be managed for their multi-functionality. IWMI research seeks to demonstrate how, under what conditions, and at what scale ecosystem service management contributes to improving the lives of the poor.

Ecosystem services research goes beyond this, however. It is central to a global strategy for sustainability. Global agricultural systems are met with the dual challenge of increasing food production to meet a growing global population, and to reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment. IWMI and its partners recognize that the agriculture of the 21st century must move beyond yield and focus on the capacity of agricultural landscapes to provide multiple ecosystem services, including food production and hydrological services.

The management of ecosystem services necessitates an integrated research focus that transcends scales – from field to landscapes – and disciplines. It also requires a clear understanding of the drivers of ecosystem service provision, in order to create sustainable incentive mechanisms to ensure the continued provision of these services, including

  • Ecological – which ecosystems provide what services and at what scales?
  • Socio-economic  – which services are people interested in and why?

Ecosystems services are a key focus of the IWMI led CGIAR Research Programme on Water Land and Ecosystems