Wednesday, April 1, 2020

UN Story: Revitalizing Ipo Watershed Ensures Fresh Water for Manila Residents

A Game of Trees

Gamification makes activities more engaging and works well in the Philippines. Now it’s being used to revitalize a forest which helps supply 20 million Filipinos with fresh water.

Who says saving nature isn’t all fun and games?

The Philippines is losing around 52,000 trees daily. Logging, slash-and-burn-farming and land development are erasing 47,000 hectares of forestland yearly – thrice the size of Quezon City. Just 7.168 million hectares remain, covering 24% of the nation’s land area.

But gamification, the process of turning otherwise serious activities into games, might help reverse this.

A partnership between GCash, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), plus the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) aims to harness Pinoys’ natural love for games to plant 365,000 trees starting July 2020.

Earth has roughly three trillion trees, forming the last remaining forests which harbour 80% of all known terrestrial plant and animal species. Forests not only mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing greenhouse gases while releasing life-giving oxygen, but ensure the availability of fresh water, a resource which is becoming scarcer each summer.

“Water comes not from faucets, but from nature, particularly healthy watersheds,” explains WWF-Philippines project manager Paolo Pagaduan. “Given current trends of deforestation, we might face a future where there isn’t enough water for Filipinos. To secure a clean and reliable source of water, especially during the dry summer months, we need to revitalize our watersheds. No water means no life.”

While currently reeling from the global COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Manila also suffered a dramatic water shortage this time last year. In March 2019, 10,000 Metro Manila households lost water access as La Mesa Dam dropped to its lowest water level in 12 years. Manila’s residents were forced to walk and line up for hours just to secure water for washing, bathing and brushing their teeth.

It is estimated that for 2020 and 2021, Metro Manila’s water demands will overtake supply by as much as 13% during peak days, meaning more dry faucets and unserved households – but taking care of our life-giving watersheds can avert this.

Ipo Watershed

Watersheds are zones which naturally collect and store water. They are typically heavily-vegetated because trees absorb rainwater which drains into streams, rivers and lakes.

Ipo Watershed, together with the Angat and Umiray watersheds, supplies 98% of the water consumed by Metro Manila. Situated northeast of the sprawling Metropolis, it covers 7236 hectares in Norzagaray and San Jose Del Monte in Bulacan, plus Rodriguez in Rizal. It is home to several species of charismatic animals, including the Philippine Brown Deer, Philippine Warty Pig, Tarictic Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Osprey.

Sadly, the watershed’s forests have been in full retreat. Though protected by several proclamations including a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title for the Indigenous Dumagat tribes of the watershed, the area is pockmarked by patches of burnt soil. From 85%, forest cover plummeted to 40% in recent years, mostly due to slash-and-burn or kaingin farming and charcoal-making.


Pinoys have always loved games – ranging from cockfighting to countless hours spent playing Pokemon Go and bumping into things. So too can this natural love for play be used for conservation.

“Over 20 million people use GCash and the majority of them are millennials,” explains Mabel Niala of Mynt, mother company of GCash. “The challenge is to channel the passion and energy of the country’s 35 million millennials for good.” GCash is the Philippines’ top cashless service and services a fifth of its population, plus 75,000 partner merchants and 75 nonprofits.

Using their mobile phones, Pinoys can plant trees through GCash Forest, part of a larger programme called GCash for Good. Users earn Green Energy Points by reducing their individual carbon footprint. Paying bills online for instance, eliminates the need to drive to a bank and consume paper for receipts and forms. More points can be garnered for walking to work, taking the stairs and avoiding single-use plastic items. GCash Forest interfaces seamlessly with existing mobile fitness apps to accurately measure not just energy saved, but exactly how much carbon emissions are reduced.

Each green energy point corresponds to a gram of carbon saved. Points are then used to nourish a virtual tree in GCash Forest. When users reach 20,560 points, his or her virtual tree will be fully-grown. WWF, BIOFIN, GCash and its allies will then plant the user’s tree species of choice this July 2020.

The partnership between GCash, BIOFIN, WWF and DENR was formalized in June of 2019 and aims to bolster Ipo Watershed with 365,000 new trees starting July. “We are depleting our natural wealth at an unimaginable rate. While the Philippines is megadiverse, it is also a hotspot given the extent of the threat to our natural environment. There is no one magic bullet that can turn the situation around. We need diverse actors to engage and find diverse solutions. And we need unusual partnerships – which in time will become usual partnerships. GCash, WWF and DENR are now embarking as one to reduce our carbon footprint and help the Philippines meet its reforestation targets. UNDP through BIOFIN is delighted to bring these actors together to stem the tide on our rapid loss of forest cover,” concludes UNDP Resident Representative Titon Mitra.

The project was inspired by the Ant Financial’s highly-lauded Ant Forest, which was launched in August 2016. Ant Forest encouraged users to grow a virtual forest, which would later translate into a real forest. By August 2019, over 122 million trees were planted in China. “GCash Forest is the localized version of this app. We’re proud that it is the pilot site in Asia,” shares GCash CMO and Head of App Product Chris Manguera.

Today there are over 2.3 million registered users of GCash Forest and plans are well underway for expansion.

“We have always said that the G in GCash stands for good and that our objective is to use technology to give back to the world. This initiative is about more than reforestation or securing vital fresh water for the residents of Metro Manila,” concludes Niala. “It’s about empowering millennials and other mobile users to fight the biggest issue of our era – climate change. But we need to spread the word more, so we call on all Pinoys to try the GCash Forest app today.”

What kind of ending can we expect from this Game of Trees? Though it will affect all Pinoys, it all boils down to the choices of its gamers

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