Nature-Based Solutions: Lessons to Improve Water Security

On earth, humans wield the baton, disrupting water's tune. Only nature can mend aquatic chords & restore harmony.

Nature-Based Solutions: Lessons to Improve Water Security
Nature-Based Solutions: Lessons to Improve Water Security
Hurmat Zehra
January 10, 2024
Blogs

Water security, crucial for global sustainability, has become a paramount concern due to a convergence of challenges, including rapid population growth, climate change, pollution, and inefficient water management. In this blog, we will look at different examples globally. As demand intensifies across sectors, Brazil faces a multifaceted water crisis in major urban centers, while the Netherlands grapples with increased vulnerability to sea-level rise. In Barcelona, the 1970s canalization of the Besos River led to unintended consequences. However, these countries remained steadfast and tackled water insecurity using a nature-based approach. Urgency prompts us to unravel innovative strategies and seek sustainable solutions for safeguarding Pakistan's water future.

Pakistan contends with severe water scarcity, ranking 14th among 'extremely high water risk' countries globally. Over 80% of its population faces scarcity for at least one month annually, worsened by excessive groundwater extraction and being a lower riparian country to India, contributing 78% of water inflows. This trajectory may lead to widespread scarcity by 2025, with only two-thirds of available water utilized, and one-third lost to discharge into the sea.

What are Nature-Based Solutions?

In 2022, the Emergency Event Database EM-DAT recorded 387 natural hazards and disasters worldwide, resulting in the loss of 30,704 lives and affecting 185 million individuals, emphasizing the urgent need for effective solutions. The World Bank's 2019 report and the World Resources Institute advocated for "Integrating Green and Grey" infrastructure projects to enhance water security and development. This innovative approach combines 'green' natural systems like floodplains with traditional 'grey' infrastructure, aiming to reduce costs and increase resilience. Nature-based solutions (NBS) have become crucial interventions, encompassing the safeguarding, supervision, and rehabilitation of natural ecosystems. Prioritizing actions such as reforesting wetlands and conserving forests stands out as effective measures that not only protect urban areas from storms and flooding but also bolster resilience on a broader scale. NBS, strategically crafted to meet various sustainable development goals, demonstrate cost-effectiveness in tackling challenges related to climate resilience, economic prosperity, water security, as well as health and food security.The figure shows a general framework of how these projects work, making the fullest use of the resilience and biodiversity gains.

General framework nature based solutions and market drivers

Netherlands: Battling Sea-Level Rise and Floods

Firstly, the Netherlands, renowned for reclaiming vast territories from the sea, faces increased susceptibility to sea-level rise due to climate change. With 29% of its land below sea level, the nation has a history of battling floods since the 8th century. Despite this, proactive measures have been implemented to mitigate flood risks. This serves as a vital lesson globally on the indispensable role of water in human life and the importance of strategic planning to address unpredictable damages from water-related disasters.

Solutions

A purely nature-based solution formulated by the Netherlands to combat their water crises was the Sand Motor. A general road map of how this works is as follows:

  1. Planning and Design: Identify coastal areas facing erosion, study wave patterns, and design solutions like a sand motor or bypassing system to enhance coastal resilience.
  1. Location Selection: Choose a suitable area near a sediment source, evaluate environmental impact, and obtain necessary permits.
  1. Construction: Build a human-made sand motor or bypassing system, including structures like groins and jetties to control sand movement.
  1. Monitoring: Implement a system to track sediment movement and shoreline changes using remote sensing, surveys, and other tools for data collection.
  1. Natural Sediment Transport: Allow natural processes like waves and currents to move sand along the coast, as the sand motor is a passive structure.
  1. Bypassing Mechanism: Use active methods like dredging or pumping to transport sand from areas of accretion to erosion-prone zones if needed.
  1. Adaptive Management: Regularly review monitoring data and maintenance routines, adjusting the project based on changing coastal conditions or unexpected outcomes.
  1. Community Engagement: Engage with local communities, gather input, and address concerns to ensure the project aligns with community goals and benefits.

This Sand Motor project in the Netherlands started in 2011 with a duration of 4 months and a goal of 20-year flood prevention. After the identification of sight and design process of regular beach nourishment was done every year in the Dutch territory. Beach nourishment was a process of depositing a large volume of sand and equaling it annually. They expected that with the direction of water current and wind, the sand would gradually be pushed to the original coastline before which it would protect the Netherlands from sea-level rise and high-intensity storms.

It has been more than 10 years since the initiation of this project. Time-lapse images and satellite pictures below demonstrate the success of the experiment, with the sand gradually moving toward the left and right of the deposited area. Additionally, the project has formed a temporary lake at the beach, fostering leisure water activities and providing a habitat for new marine life.

Arial images of natural land formation in the Netherlands from 2011 to 2016

The Netherlands has implemented another nature-based solution to address its water table challenges, focused on Mangrove conservation and restoration. Mangroves are the only terrestrial bodies that can resist saltwater and are also known as the blue carbon plant that absorbs carbon at a rate two to four times greater than the rates of tropical forests globally. Despite these benefits, mangroves have been endangered globally, and it is estimated that by the end of the 20th century, less than 50% of mangroves would remain intact. The reasons for deforestation in this country are but not limited to the demand for waterproof wood that the stems of mangroves consist of. Further, the shrimp industry, agriculture, and aquaculture are causes of mangrove deforestation worldwide. It's worth noting that the deforestation of mangroves releases ancient carbon stored in the soil for centuries, accelerating climate change. 

The Netherlands, with a public-private partnership, is working on restoring mangroves along the Dutch coastline. The figures below show the undertaken steps to ensure the success of this project the general steps are similar to that of the sand motor which include site identification, monitory, and building of preamble dams where surface runoff was higher. This approach helps preserve the coastline from soil erosion while maintaining water quality. Furthermore, they serve as the habitat for a wide range of marine life while also being a shelter for wildlife species.  The Dutch’s adaptive approach to water management stands as a beacon for other nations facing similar challenges.

Process of Mangrove Conservation and Restoration in the Netherlands.

Brazil's Water Crisis: Navigating Severe Challenges in Urban Centers 

Brazil's water challenge goes beyond immediate crises, impacting major urban centers like Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Vitoria. These regions, constituting a quarter of Brazil, grapple with severe water crises marked by floods and droughts. Hazards extend to compromising water quality through events like landslides and inadequate wastewater treatment. Beyond scarcity, Brazil faces the depletion of its primary defense: forests. Accelerated deforestation not only worsens current water challenges but also raises concerns about long-term environmental resilience.

Solutions

In alignment with the global imperative of sustainable water management, Brazil initiated the Water Conservators (2005) project. Developed in collaboration with civil society organizations, and federal and state entities, the project exemplifies a commitment to ensuring water quality and promoting environmental compliance on rural properties. This innovative approach prioritizes preventive intervention over repressive measures. 

The Water Conservators project's success has demonstrated the effectiveness of nature-based strategies and paved the way for broader environmental initiatives, as seen in the 'Mantiqueira Conservators' project. This subsequent project focuses on restoring forests in the Mantiqueira Mountains, crucial to the largest metropolitan regions in Brazil—Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states—where springs play a vital role in sustaining water sources for 20 million people. The objective was the Restoration of native forests through natural regeneration, contributing towards the protection of watersheds that supply two of the largest cities in Brazil. The impact reached about 500 families and producers, Natural regeneration is equivalent to 6 million trees and generated payments for ecosystem services to producers.

Land use changes in the Mantiqueira region (1985–2015), reflecting an increase in forest area over the years, an increase in vegetation area reduction in water use.

The Filtering Gardens Project in Recife (2020) takes on the dual challenge of safeguarding rivers and managing sewage, operating effectively at the municipal level. Utilizing filtering gardens technology for its ease of management and cost-effectiveness, the project adopts a preventive intervention approach, focusing on the protection of riparian areas as public environmental recovery zones. This not only addresses immediate river pollution concerns but also prevents future environmental risks associated with human occupation. Notably, the project contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, distinguishing itself from conventional sewage treatment systems. An illustrative pilot project, the "Antonio Maria Square: restoration of an Urban River" in Pernambuco State, serves to validate the technology of filtering gardens as a nature-based solution. Commissioned to Phytorestore, a French landscape architecture studio, this initiative designs wetlands and filtration gardens along the riverbanks to effectively clean the water, incorporating features like a vegetable garden, composter area, water squares, and various filtering gardens into the park's layout. This localized yet impactful strategy exemplifies a step towards sustainable water solutions on a global scale.

Structure of the model filtering garden in the Antonio Maria Square in Pernambuco.

Spain's Besos River Woes Water Management Challenges- 1970s Canalization

In the 1970s, a classical approach was employed to canalize the Besos River in Barcelona, ostensibly to mitigate high-flow impact but, in reality, to create flat areas conducive to construction. This resulted in the formation of numerous artificial impervious surfaces, hindering infiltration and leading to the encroachment of industrial facilities and urban development into high-flow zones associated with the river.

Solution

In the transformative narrative of the Besos River, the 1990s witnessed a significant overhaul of its final stretch, ushering in a harmonious blend of natural processes and human ingenuity. The re-naturalization initiative introduced bends to the low-flow concrete channel, repurposing the reclaimed bed for an urban park and tertiary wastewater treatment. This eco-friendly approach not only mitigated immediate concerns but also addressed long-term issues by preventing future human occupations and reducing associated environmental risks. The pioneering use of constructed wetlands in the initial 3-kilometer stretch stands out as a testament to innovative wastewater treatment. Operating on underground flow, these wetlands harnessed the power of microorganisms like Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter, resulting in a substantial reduction in nutrient concentrations. The positive impact on river water quality is undeniable, with the most encouraging sign being the resurgence of invertebrate life—a crucial step towards restoring the ecological balance in this stretch of the river. The figure below shows the reformation framework and action of wetlands at the initial 3 km bank of River Besos. 

The Besos River Park stands as a transformative success, transcending its role in wastewater treatment to become a beacon in the revival of a once-vanished river ecosystem. The triumphant return of once-lost plant species like reeds, bulrush, and water lilies not only enriches the environmental and landscape recovery of the watercourse but also symbolizes a milestone in ecological rejuvenation. The proposal to introduce meandering to the central channel further amplifies the environmental recovery, fostering a greater diversity of fluvial habitats. Years after its inception, the park showcases flourishing biodiversity, with seven fish species and over 200 bird species identified, including approximately 15 species choosing to breed within its confines. This holistic success story of the Besos River Park not only highlights the transformative impact on wastewater management but also underscores the harmonious coexistence between human innovation and the environment, offering invaluable insights for regions grappling with similar water challenges.

Unlocking Pakistan's Water Woes: Navigating the Crisis with Nature-Based Solutions

In 2022, Pakistan confronted unparalleled challenges as one-third of the nation grappled with devastating floods, impacting 33 million people, half of whom were children. The floods disrupted water systems and forced over 5.4 million individuals to rely on contaminated water sources, leading to a dire humanitarian crisis. With 7.6 million people displaced and nearly 600,000 seeking refuge in relief sites, Karachi faced intensified security concerns as displaced individuals settled in urban areas. Moreover, the climate risk index highlighted Pakistan's increased vulnerability over the past two decades, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive reform.

Adding to these challenges, the dependence on the Indus River system, constituting 95.8% of Pakistan's renewable water resources, poses a significant risk. Lower Sindh, including Thatta, Badin, Tando Muhammad Khan, and Sujawal, grapples with severe drought conditions, exacerbated by a 69% drop in water availability at the Kotri Barrage. The shortfall in the agreed-upon water allocation further compounds the water crisis, with the Guddu Barrage experiencing a 92% reduction in water levels and the Sukkur Barrage facing a 47% decline. These issues raise substantial concerns about water security and agricultural impacts in the region.

Climate Risk Index 2000-2019

Furthermore, the timeline of natural disasters, including Gulab Shaheen, Tauktae, and Biparjoy, revealed a heightened vulnerability in coastal areas. Despite making landfalls, these cyclones failed to cause significant changes in the coastal regions. Karachi, standing at just 10 meters above sea level and serving as the primary urban center, faced increased susceptibility. Additionally, the urban development through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Baluchistan region posed threats to the natural landscape, raising long-term sustainability concerns for urban expansion in the region. This trifecta of flooding, coastal vulnerabilities, and water shortages underscores the multifaceted environmental challenges facing Pakistan.

In light of the prevalent flooding storms and draught risks in Pakistan, valuable lessons can be gleaned from the nature-based solutions implemented in the Netherlands, Brazil, and Spain. Now let us highlight the key takeaways in light of highlighted risks:

The 950 km long coast and mangrove frequency in Pakistan
  1. Natural topography: Pakistan's 950 km-long coastal region, abundant with mangroves, serves as a natural barrier against storms and coastal flooding, akin to the approaches adopted in the Netherlands, and Brazil. The rugged terrain of Balochistan acts as a natural barrier, negating the need for intentional barriers like sand motors as in the Netherlands.
  1. Reforestation and Afforestation:  Initiatives focused on planting trees and restoring forest cover, particularly in critical watershed areas, can play a pivotal role in regulating water flow, preventing soil erosion, and enhancing groundwater recharge. This strategy holds the promise of improved water retention, reduced sedimentation, and heightened resilience to drought, contributing to sustainable water management in the country.
  2. Wetland Restoration/ Water Management: Developing constructed wetlands in Brazil offers a valuable solution for wastewater treatment and purification. By leveraging natural filtration processes, Pakistan can remove pollutants and enhance overall water quality. The impact of this strategy includes cleaner water for agricultural and domestic use, as well as the protection of aquatic ecosystems.
  3. Community-Based Watershed Management: Involving local communities like in Sindh in the sustainable use of water resources through community-based watershed management ensures that water management practices align with community needs. This fosters a sense of ownership and contributes to enhanced water governance, reduced conflicts, and improved water security.
  4. Green Infrastructure: Embracing green infrastructure emerges as an effective nature-based solution for flood risk and draught management in Pakistan's urban areas. This entails incorporating natural or engineered features like green roofs, rain gardens, and permeable pavements, particularly in lower Sindh. Green infrastructure not only reduces runoff and enhances water quality but also delivers additional benefits such as aesthetic improvements, biodiversity enhancement, and mitigation of the urban heat island effect.

Conclusion

In the grand symphony of existence, water plays the role of an often overlooked hero, intricately woven into the fabric of life. Amidst the hurdles posed by a shifting climate and growing water stress, acknowledging water not merely as a resource but as the very essence of our interconnected survival becomes imperative. This realization serves as a clarion call for nations to adopt sustainable practices, ensuring the preservation of this life-sustaining elixir for generations to come. The exploration of how countries like Brazil, Spain, and the Netherlands have embraced nature-based solutions in addressing water challenges provides valuable insights for Pakistan and its agricultural landscape.

By seamlessly integrating these nature-inspired solutions into Pakistan's risk management strategy, the nation can bolster its resilience against natural disasters while promoting environmental sustainability and community well-being. A noteworthy example is the "Urban Forest" initiative in Karachi, Pakistan, where aesthetics and air quality are not the sole focus; the project ingeniously employs water management to treat seawater, contributing to the growth of naturally thriving trees. This model showcases the potential for innovative approaches that harmonize ecological balance with practical solutions, steering Pakistan toward a more secure and sustainable water future.

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