Watersheds and Human Health

Better watershed management could enhance public health while simultaneously conserving some of the most important landscapes and seascapes left on earth.

The challenge

Public health issues such as malnutrition, water-borne diseases, and mental illness cause significant hardship and millions of deaths annually. Case studies and anecdotes indicate that trends in natural ecosystems and human health are related, but we lack a general and rigorous understanding of these connections. In particular, the impact of watershed disturbance on water-borne disease in downstream communities is gaining increased international attention, but is still poorly understood at a global level. A clearer picture of these linkages would help to improve public health outcomes for some of the world’s poorest people, while simultaneously conserving some of the most important landscapes and seascapes left on earth.

The Response

This project will use Big Data to understand how environmental condition and management of watersheds affects human health outcomes. To do this, the project team we will compile, for the first time, all of the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) administered for USAID over 20 years, covering 100,000’s of households in more than 40 countries. We will combine these data—including health outcomes like diarrhea, stunting, and anemia as well as socio-economic factors like education, income, sanitation— with information on protected areas, land cover, climate, and infrastructure to produce a unique global database.

This research will lead to greater understanding of how land management and conservation can affect human health outcomes. The analysis approach will be replicable for use in predicting potential health impacts of different alternative investments in conservation. It will increase WWF capacity on human health and conservation linkages. The unique public database and a predictive tool can ultimately be applied to estimate likely health impacts of proposed WWF projects, demonstrating the potential value of conservation as a public health investment. Outputs will include a global dataset linking environment and human health, usable by anyone in conservation; a series of scientific papers; and an assessment of applicability in one WWF priority river basin.


Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages (the HEAL consortium), WWF-UK

Main image: Pukapuki man in a traditional dug-out canoe. Papua New Guinea. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Luc Hoffmann InstituteWatersheds and Human Health