Going green to improve water management
This year’s World Water Development Report (WWDR 2018) emphasizes the power and potential of “nature-based solutions” (NBS) to respond to the challenges of modern-day water management across all sectors, but in particular for cities, during disasters, in water-fragile environments and for agriculture use.
NBS, including green infrastructure, adopts or mirrors natural systems and processes to improve water availability (e.g., groundwater recharge) and water quality (e.g., natural and constructed wetlands), and to reduce risks from water-related disasters and climate change (e.g., green roofs).
However, the reality is that much of the water management practice has been traditionally dominated by human-built, grey infrastructure. As such, the potential for NBS remains under-utilized. Green infrastructure — as an approach that protects, restores or mimics the natural water cycle and other ecosystem services — has the power to replace, enhance or work in parallel with grey infrastructure in a cost-effective manner. NBS shows potential in achieving progress toward sustainable food production, improved human settlements, access to water supply and sanitation, water-related disaster risk reduction and responding to the impacts of climate change on water resources. Development solutions that integrate ecosystem structure and function will inherently realize cost savings as these approaches conserve and sustain both the natural resource base and the environment, in addition to the infrastructure on which human settlements depend.
Growing interest in NBS is reflected in how it is increasingly incorporated into policy developments in the management of water resources, biodiversity, urban settlements and many other sectors. As we approach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) deadline (the targets set to provide universal coverage for WASH, or “water, sanitation and hygiene”), the focus is rightly turning toward common objectives and supportive actions in line with these SDG policy priorities.
The real challenge is finding effective ways to blend green and grey interventions that optimize return on investments, maximize efficiencies and minimize costs. WWDR 2018 addresses these points head on and identifies four conditions that need to be met in order to scale uptake:
- Leveraging financing: The need for broader application of NBS can be met with a special call for redirecting and making more effective use of existing financial instruments, such as green bonds.
- Enabling environments for regulation and law: The existing framework for water management is based on a grey-infrastructure approach mindset; so at best, NBS tends to be an afterthought. NBS needs to be promoted more effectively through existing regulatory regimes, rather than creating them anew.
- Improving cross-sectoral collaboration: The nature of NBS requires a much higher degree of collaboration across institutions than grey-infrastructure approaches, as well as better harmonization across economic, social and environmental policy agendas. Policy champions are key in fostering this type of collaboration.
- Improving the knowledge base: Science, evidence and examples from practical application all provide much-needed proof for decision-makers on the feasibility of NBS. As a sector, we need to do a much better job in documenting and articulating the benefits and steps involved in changing practice.
The last point — application and uptake — is the cornerstone of these four preconditions. Without it, little will practically change on the ground, even if the three other preconditions are satisfactorily met.
To this end, USAID has recognized the importance green infrastructure plays in sustaining ecosystem services and has developed practical guidance for decision-makers involved in the planning and design of these solutions. In support of USAID, AECOM developed the Green Infrastructure Resource Guide that defines green infrastructure, outlines how it can help communities adapt to human and environmental stress, and introduces 12 benefits that are associated with specific interventions. Interventions such as groundwater recharge to managing soil slope stabilization are reviewed in detail, including specific engineering-design options that can be implemented. The guide concludes with a discussion about how green infrastructure can be applied at various scales, in different settings and under what conditions.
AECOM has implemented the green infrastructure concepts outlined in the resource guide on USAID-funded projects, demonstrating their importance and how they can enhance and protect natural resources. Through the USAID PARA-Agua project in Peru and Colombia, AECOM helped communities and water-user groups improve their knowledge base by gathering and analyzing climate and watershed data to enable effective decision making on appropriate green infrastructure design options, and helped develop financial instruments to fund them.
On the USAID Be Secure project in the Philippines, AECOM promoted effective integrated water-resources-management approaches to safeguard downstream city water supplies. Green infrastructure interventions linking best practices in upper watersheds with downstream water supplies demonstrated the importance of NBS to city water security and climate readiness.
As the WWDR concludes, “increased deployment of NBS is central to meeting the key contemporary water resources management challenges… Without a more rapid uptake of NBS, water security will continue to decline.”
This call should encourage us all to “go green,” not only during events such as World Water Day, but also consistently throughout our work. As such, AECOM continues to seek opportunities to apply green infrastructure and NBS approaches through our USAID-funded programs and other projects.
This blog post is part of a series celebrating Earth Day 2018.
 USAID’s Green Infrastructure Resource Guide was co-authored and co-designed by AECOM’s Stephen Blanton, Iulia Barbu, Meg Findley, Aaron Weieneth, Elizabeth Durfee, Melissa Hess, Jason Matus and Gina DeSimone. It is the successful result of joint collaboration across multiple AECOM offices.