The media is replete with grim reminders of challenges related to water, a recent one being ‘Cape Town’ (in South Africa) running out of water in May 2018’. While governments, global organizations, academia and communities discuss and foretell such problems related to scarcity and pollution of water, none would have anticipated that a major global city would face this kind of water crisis so soon. Though ‘day zero’ (the day when taps actually run dry) in Cape Town was deferred by a few months largely because of stringent measures like water rationing, higher ‘punitive’ tariffs for water overuse, deployment of ‘water police’ etc., the situation is still not under control. Rather, it depends upon rainfall, which is both unreliable and unpredictable. What is more alarming is that this is not likely to be an isolated instance, many cities are on the verge of such calamities owing to ever-increasing populations, increased economic activity, urbanization, lack of water management, climate change etc.

So is there a solution? Many believe in ‘going back to nature’ for answers. In line with this, World Water Day 2018 selected the theme, ‘Nature for Water’ with the objective of exploring nature-based solutions (NBS) to water related issues that the world is encountering currently. NBS are essentially remedies inspired and supported by nature that provide environmental, social and economic benefits to society while at the same time helping them build strength to adapt to climate and other sociological/demographic changes.

The key implication is that ‘green’ nature based solutions, such as planting trees to replenish forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains, restoring wetlands etc. are more cost-effective and sustainable than ‘grey’ technology based infrastructure; they can help rebalance the water cycle, reduce the effects of pollution and climate change and improve human health and livelihoods.

Nature based solutions can be implemented at both micro as well as macro levels i.e. they can start at the level of an individual house/plot, office or building or they can be implemented at a city or even national level. For instance, many private residences as well as cultural, academic and business institutions across the world are developing ‘green roofs’. This technique improves the thermal properties of the building thereby maximizing energy efficiency and reducing heating/cooling costs, absorbs moisture – eliminating the need for a complex drainage system, retains 40-90% of rainwater received, reduces carbon dioxide pollution etc. Small scale water harvesting structures are another localized measure of improving groundwater recharge.

Numerous “bottom-up” community initiatives across the world indicate the awareness towards the advantages of utilizing nature to resolve ecological problems. For example, local communities (with the support of non-governmental organisations) successfully restored local water cycles and water resources during a drought in Rajasthan in the 1980s. They managed to regenerate soils and forests in the region by setting up water harvesting structures leading to a 30% increase in forest cover, rise in groundwater levels by about 6 meters and improvement in cropland productivity.

Instances mentioned above also illustrate how NBS’ help in simultaneously responding to multiple challenges. Recognizing the potential of NBS in ensuring urban sustainability, restoring degraded ecosystems several European Union countries are ‘re-naturing cities’ as part of the ‘Horizon 2020’ Research and Innovation program (Case studies of European cities using NBS for various challenges are cited in following sections of this newsletter). The business community is also acknowledging the value of managing biodiversity and ecosystem services as a business opportunity and as an essential means to reduce economic risks.

Harnessing nature to reverse the harmful effects of ecological degradation does seem to be effective and sustainable but what is imperative for the success of NBS is collaboration among academia and researchers, policy makers, the business community and citizens.

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