Integrated water resources management, Water resources

Can nature provide the solutions for better water management?

Nature-based solutions are water management interventions that make targeted use of ecosystems to deliver specific water management benefits. With communities around the world increasingly facing risks and impacts due to population growth, urbanisation and climate change, nature-based solutions have a lot to offer in support of sustainable and affordable water management.

The focus on nature-based solutions: Why now?

Ecosystem-based approaches and nature-based solutions as a targeted intervention have been known for decades. So why are they in the limelight only recently?

The reason is simple. Conventional water infrastructure in many countries can no longer meet the needs of growing communities.

There is an urgent need for new investments in water management infrastructure and budgets are sparse. Populations are growing, and so are the pressures on all types of infrastructure and socioeconomic development objectives. These include the mounting challenges of the climate change with increasing number of extraordinary events in shape of floods, droughts and intense heat waves.

Multiple benefits

What sets nature-based solutions apart from conventional responses to water challenges is their multiple benefits.

Take an example of wetlands as part of a nature-based water infrastructure. While a wastewater treatment plant is designed to largely fulfil a single function – wastewater treatment – and a levee is designed to only withhold floodwaters, wetlands can contribute to both objectives. That’s not all.  Wetlands also play a big role in flood mitigation and water purification. They also function as a rich habitat for a variety of species and as breeding grounds for fish and birds.  All these on top of providing recreational possibilities and potential new livelihoods for surrounding communities.

Three essential tips on getting started

 The key to getting started is identifying and building on existing regulatory, policy and financing structures that can provided the necessary entry point for the stakeholders to work together. Here’s what you can do:

1.       Building on existing work

There’s no need to start from scratch. Leveraging on existing work, such as implementing integrated water management strategies can help create entry points to scaling up implementation on nature-based solutions.

2.       Making use of already available tools to assess potential

How to know which nature-based solutions are right ones for your challenge? There are various tools available to assess the potential for nature-based management. The Green Guide (WWF International, 2016), for instance, has tools for assessing a catchment and selecting structural and non-structural methods for flood-risk management, which may be adaptable for other uses.

3.       Getting the financing in place

Widely-used financing systems for such solutions include payments for ecosystem services (PES) and schemes that subsidise communities in a catchment to ensure they get access to water services. This helps communities understand the value of ecosystem services, while beneficiaries downstream (a city, water utility or hydropower plant) pay for the service. Similarly, landholders may be paid by water utility companies, cities or business interests for stewardship of large landscapes such as forests.

Additional guidance on how to start

A new guide on nature-based solutions for water management – put together by UN Environment-DHI, UN Environment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – aims to exemplify how nature-based approaches can help tackle water management issues such as floods, droughts and water pollution, and bring about a range of other benefits. Access it here.

About the author


Maija Bertule
Senior Technical Advisor
UN-Environment-DHI Centre