A paper written by an International Water Security Network researcher has been cited in a new report – the UN World Water Development Report 2018 – published by UN Water. This annual flagship report on water issues was launched at the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia, a few days before World Water Day (22 March). It is subtitled ‘Nature-based solutions for water’, and is full of useful information and case studies – an overview of the practice of nature-based solutions across the world.
One of the case studies in the report (page 40; PDF page 52) is about landscape restoration leading to improved water security in Rajasthan, India. It mentions the achievements of the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS, based in Bheekampura in the Alwar District of Rajasthan) in regenerating water systems and associated livelihoods. The success factors behind these initiatives were highlighted in my 2015 paper, which is cited in the report. On a recent visit to TBS, many people assembled for a weekend Chitan Shivir (‘debating workshop’) thanked me for promoting their work.
What is meant by ‘nature-based solutions’?
Although other terms have been applied to this approach, including ecosystem-based solutions, working with natural processes, and ecocentric development, ‘nature-based solutions’ (or NBS) has current profile. One that I find helpful is ‘systemic solutions’, defined by Everard and McInnes (2013) as “…low-input technologies using natural processes to optimise benefits across the spectrum of ecosystem services and their beneficiaries”, which explicitly recognises the potential for achieving multiple benefits across societal interests by exploiting or emulating natural processes.
Natural flood management (NFM) is another relatively recent phrase familiar to many – exploiting or restoring the flow-buffering and water-detaining natural functions of catchments to ‘slow the flow’ of water, including desynchronising flood peaks. Good NFM solutions designed and implemented with foresight will also yield co-beneficial fishery recruitment, other biodiversity gain, water quality enhancement, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, landscape aesthetics and a host of other linked ecosystem service outcomes valued by a range of beneficiaries and of substantial cumulative benefit (certainly as compared to traditionally engineered flood walls downstream).
Wetland functioning is another area of my interest, including both the multi-beneficial services provided by natural wetlands but also of heritage wetlands (such as contributions to catchment functioning by Britain’s historic water meadow systems) and constructed wetlands. But truly nature-based, multi-functional constructed wetlands are far more than ‘reeds in a box’ (narrowly conceived technical solutions that add some greenery for the narrow output of wastewater polishing). A more evolved ‘systemic solutions’ approach is seen in the form of integrated constructed wetlands (ICWs), initiated in County Waterford (Ireland) but increasingly implemented elsewhere (including in Norfolk in the UK) to deliver multiple outcomes spanning a range of ecosystem services. Essentially, ICWs are cascades of shallow wetland cells not only potentially cleaning wastewater from farms, villages, industry and households but also providing habitat for wildlife, buffering flows, serving as amenity areas and many more benefits besides. In several ICWs in the Anne Valley of Country Waterford, a number of farmers use their lower ICW cells as trout fisheries, and the otter spraints (droppings also serving as territory markers) are abundant!
So what’s new about NBSs?
In reality, not a lot is new about the basic philosophy of NBS. We lived off natural catchment processes – for water purification and supply, flood regulation and aquatic resources such as fish, wildfowl and thatch – in pre-industrial, low-population times. Also, in my work in India, we are cataloguing and promoting the restoration of ‘water wise’ solutions by which people have harnessed natural processes to support their survival and progress in dryland regions throughout millennia.
The novelty of NBSs though is that they are making inroads now into a highly populated, climate-changing, urbanising and technocentric world. The novelty is that we are realising that we need to make space again for the natural processes that are the fundamental capital supporting our needs, and upon which our technologies ultimately depend.
It is we, not nature, that must change, and integrate our dependence on natural processes in the solutions we innovate if we are to enjoy a sustainable future.