Time for Nature

Photo by Gustavo Quepón on Unsplash

This year’s theme for World Environment Day is Time for Nature, and with COVID-19  many of us are now taking the time  to appreciate our green spaces as the monotony of lockdowns are being relaxed. There has also been much discussion around nature recovering and rejuvenating during this time of limited movement, from the Himalayas being seen from Jalandhar to reduced carbon emissions to reduced water pollution. Many industrial sources of pollution that affect our lakes, rivers and groundwater have trickled to a stop. The reduction in boat traffic has reduced turbidity, as was seen in Venice’s clear canals with jellyfish appearing where just a few months ago it was packed with tourists on gondolas and ferries. 

Yet at the same time due to the devastating impact on the economy, there is more pressure on natural resources by those that have lost their livelihoods and income streams, for example around protected areas that rely on tourism. This leads to a negative feedback loop of land-use changes, deforestation, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss that can increase the opportunity for disease transmission between humans and host animals.  Damage to the environment can also threaten water sources which rely on ecosystem services for flows and quality, leading water utilities to deal with water shortages and increased costs to treat and supply water. 

More than ever it is important to recognise nature as a solution to securing water resources – there is growing evidence that integrating nature-based solutions (NBS) into water operations can be cost-effective, efficient and adaptable as well as offering co-benefits. The cost-effectiveness is important as economies get squeezed and less funds are available for infrastructure. 

An approach of integrating green and grey infrastructure such as reservoirs, treatment plants and pipe networks, with watersheds and wetlands protection and conservation, can lead to improved water quality and reduced cost. For example, IWA Corporate member, Anglian Water working with the Norfolk Rivers Trust developed treatment wetlands that improved effluent quality returning to the river. The wetland filters water after it has passed through the existing treatment plant to ensure it meets high quality standards, replacing the need for conventional, energy intensive infrastructure. This case is one of a series in a publication from IWA and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – Nature for Water: A Series of Utility Spotlights. Read more about the Anglian Water case here.

IWA and TNC have been working together to encourage and facilitate active utility involvement in NBS, as well as promoting stronger connections between water utilities and regulatory bodies. Working in tandem, these institutions can strengthen the cause for investing in nature. Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) and its regulator Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) have developed an offsite nutrient reduction project that is achieving better water quality and biodiversity outcomes, while delivering cost savings to water utilities and their customers. This took several years of trust building and stakeholder buy-in to achieve. But the rewards of working together can achieve results for the economy, public health and nature. 

The potential for long term gains are why there is growing interest by Ghana Water Company Limited (an IWA Corporate member) to work closely with River Basin Boards to increase knowledge about how NBS can improve water management and the associated costs and benefits when compared to grey infrastructure. An upcoming IWA webinar on June 16th will delve further into exploring NBS in Ghana through Ghana Water and the Water Resource Commission. Join the webinar  and read more about the Ghana case here.

NBS require patience, time, and needs to be context specific. But encouragingly, nature is increasingly being recognised as part of a holistic approach for water utilities, the populations they serve and their watersheds. This year’s theme is apt for the future of water- it is time we acknowledge, promote, value and care #ForNature.

Katharine Cross

Strategy and Partnerships Lead, Australian Water Partnership
Katharine has extensive experience in the water sector from global to local scale with a focus on climate resilience and adaptation, nature-based solutions, water-energy-food nexus,  water governance and the digitalisation of the water sector. She h... Read full biography