The Natural Choice for Our Water Resources

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Published on September 19th, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

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There’s often this sense that we have a choice to make—a choice about whether to protect the environment or to focus on growing more food or getting clean water to more people. With more strategic thinking about how we manage water, though, we can truly see improvements in all of these areas. And that helps me sleep at night.

Earlier this week in Stockholm, I joined colleagues from Conservation International, World Vision and other NGOs and government agencies to talk about nature-based solutions that can strike a better balance to meet our needs for food, water and ecosystem health.

In my presentation, I zeroed in on natural infrastructure. You’ve probably heard this term thrown around a lot. It encompasses all sorts of land and water elements, but basically refers to nature’s capacity to complement, augment or replace the services provided by traditional engineered infrastructure.

This chart from my presentation shows how ‘green,’ or natural, infrastructure can provide the same kinds of benefits as traditional ‘gray,’ or manmade, structures.

Don’t get me wrong—natural infrastructure isn’t always the right choice instead of built infrastructure, but both options should be on the table. Often, the best choice might be a well-designed combination of the two. But without healthy ecosystems in well-functioning watersheds, the infrastructure built for irrigation or water supply often fails to operate sustainably. The cost of ignoring the value of natural infrastructure can be high, and it’s typically the poorest and most vulnerable people who face the gravest consequences.

Take Diama Dam. It was constructed in the Senegal Delta in 1985 to stop the dry season influx of saline water into the lower delta and to store water for irrigation.

By 1994, starved of annual floods, the delta became hyper-salinised and choked with invasive weeds. Only 44,000 hectares of the planned 375,000 hectares of irrigation was being farmed and the daily income of fishers was reduced to less than US$3 per day. Livestock grazing virtually disappeared.

According to Putting Nature in the Nexus, infrastructure engineered for agricultural intensification had degraded the natural infrastructure of the delta and the livelihoods that went with it. People were poorer, and less water and food secure.

Fast forward to 1998 when seasonal flooding was restored. The daily income per fisher rose to more than US$20 and cattle were again grazing across the delta. Clearly, it’s a stark reminder that ecosystem health is key not only to natural species and habitat, but also to our own economic vitality and wellbeing.

We can get this right if we make wise decisions about infrastructure and appreciate the true value of all the natural solutions already out there.

Learn more about this topic from the ‘Nature Based Solutions’ forum at World Water Week, or visit nature.org.

[Image: Restoring meanders, wetlands and oxbow lakes to Benson Creek, Arkansas. Image Source: The Nature Conservancy]

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