New U.N. World Water Development Report highlights the high stakes for preserving and restoring water resources. CIFOR/Icaro Cooke Vieira

Exploring nature-based solutions for source water protection on World Water Day

From grey to green

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BONN, Germany (Landscape News) –The last time you turned on the tap, did you think about where the water came from? Maybe it carried the chlorinated whiff of water treatment; perhaps it was brownish from journeys through rusty pipes; it might have been reduced to a trickle if your rainwater supply was running low. Chances are, you didn’t give it a lot of thought.

But today is World Water Day, and it’s a great opportunity to look deeper into our relationship with this resource.

The U.N. World Water Development Report (WWDR) for 2018, released March 19 in Brasilia, highlights the high stakes for preserving and restoring water resources. Water pollution has worsened in almost all African, Asian and Latin American rivers in recent years, and more than 2 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water.

Meanwhile, global demand for water is growing year by year, and climate change is beginning to affect the reliability of existing sources. Water scarcity is already affecting people’s health and livelihoods around the world, and could soon be a serious source of conflict.

“Water is life”, say activists, and it’s true: the health of our water sources affects us all. Building water security through protecting and restoring the ecosystems around our watersheds is a crucial task, and the subject of a lot of recent work by governments and civil society, including this recent report by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

As TNC’s Strategy Director of Water Funds Daniel Shemie explains, “Ecosystem security of a catchment is intimately tied to the water security of people. Can you ever really feel water-secure if your watershed is degraded?” Fortunately, as the WWDR highlights, the solutions may be closer than we think.


The theme of this year’s World Water Day is “Nature for Water”, and nature-based solutions (NBS) for water challenges are in the spotlight.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), NBS are “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”

The WWDR adds that these solutions, in the water context, are inspired and supported by nature and use, or mimic, natural processes to contribute to the improved management of water.”

Essentially, says the report, NBS work with nature instead of against it, and thus provide the required alternative to “business-as-usual” water management, which is falling short of global needs. They support a “circular economy” that is restorative and regenerative, resulting in better productivity. They can also provide a range of important co-benefits, such as reducing disaster risk, enhancing food and energy security, contributing to human health, wellbeing and livelihoods, and supporting biodiversity.

Sound radical? The irony, as Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, acknowledges in the forward to the report, is that NBS for water have actually been around for thousands of years.

“For centuries, people protected the land around their water source because they had no means of treating the water quality,” elaborates Shemie. “So before we had all that technology, in the US for example, it was not uncommon for small water providers to own the land around their water source, and to protect and preserve it.”

The concept of NBS, then, is more than anything about “describing the role of nature, in a way that different kinds of decision-makers can understand,” he says.


So why aren’t NBS common practice yet? As Azoulay explains, we’ve become accustomed to using human-built “grey” infrastructure for managing water, and we’ve lost connection to “greener” approaches along the way. As the report points out, with grey infrastructure around the world aging and becoming insufficient to meet demand, now is a great time to reorient towards greener solutions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with concrete and pipes altogether; in fact, some of the best NBS projects help grey infrastructure to function more effectively and efficiently. If water sources are protected and restored, for example, it brings down water treatment costs in urban areas, and helps rural communities access safe drinking water, too. “Built infrastructure is still an amazing thing,” acknowledges Shemie. “I get water in my house because of it! But we need to start rebalancing green and grey if we want a sustainable future.”

An important aspect of moving from grey to green is adapting governance and funding mechanisms to connect water users with those protecting the land around their water source, he says. “It’s about solving government failures – in a world which made sense, people would invest in water.”

This can be challenging, as water refuses to obey human regional and national boundaries, but organizations like TNC have developed mechanisms for making it work. In fact, TNC has just launched a new resource, the Water Funds Toolbox, which makes their experience in this field freely available to practitioners everywhere.


As the WWDR reminds us, NBS still make up less that 1% of total investment in water management infrastructure, and they are often ignored in practice, even when they make economic and environmental sense. But their potential for radically improving water management—and getting diverse groups of people engaged and connected in new ways with each other and with the resources on which we all depend—is expansive and exciting.

“Water can actually be a very unifying topic,” says Shemie. “We’re often able to get people who don’t often talk to each other all around the same table, because we’re starting with the shared challenge of water security. And we might end up talking about climate adaptation, climate resilience, biodiversity and benefits to rural livelihoods – but that whole cascade, it starts with water.”


Q+A: Putting nature based solutions to work to protect water sources

Top 5 takeaways from World Water Development Report 2018


3 things you can do on World Water Day (and beyond)

Beyond the Source: The environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection

Nature: Your risk-free geo-engineering service

After Paris: Nature’s role in mission 1.5 degree

Are we undervaluing nature’s role in the world’s growth story?

Landscape restoration in Ethiopia brings watershed to life

Cool insights on World Water Day

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