On this platform I represent the global voice of environmental advocacy, to speak up for the rights of people and nature, for the social benefits of wetlands and ecological flows, for all the extraordinary species (including our own) that depend on resilient nature for their life support.
IUCN defends the inherent beauty and intrinsic value of aquatic ecosystems. We delight in the pulse of a current. We honour the wholeness of life on Earth.
Yet I won’t wax poetic or beg for charity. If you choose first to allocate water to farms, firms and families, I won’t plead for you to leave the last few trickles for wildlife.
Nor am I here to exact concessions. I won’t scold that dams, dikes and levees can’t go forward until you comply with green codes. I’m not here to call for a crackdown by regulatory police.
I’m here to reveal an unseen opportunity.
Let’s be honest about our constraints. Our species has squandered more currency and river currents than we can afford. Many are in deep debt economically; all of us are in deeper debt ecologically, on track to demand 40% more water than the world can supply.
So where does that leave us? Raise your hand if you have more funds than you need. Or if next year’s budget will triple. Or if capital, labor, energy and food will get cheaper.
But, what if I told you that much of the capital you need to lock in water security is at your fingertips? What if I said most of your water infrastructure is already in place?
All this wealth, this natural capital—unless it’s been squandered—is waiting for you to unlock and leverage. It just takes a lens to see what had been invisible.
That lens is nature.
To some, nature’s lens seems a luxury. Against the thirst of an increasingly hot, crowded, urban, and fast-changing planet, your instinct is to pour more concrete, lay more pipes, and weld more steel. I respect the pressure you face.
But before you plunge deeper down that costly and contentious ‘hard path’ agenda that sees nature as an obstacle to avoid or debt to repay, you should grasp a new reality: nature is no longer ‘a problem.’
Nature is a solution.
Once you recognize this, you start to appreciate the unseen and silent work of nature:
• Peat bogs as water filtration plants;
• Forest slopes as sediment traps to secure hydropower;
• Coral reefs as storm-buffering breakwaters;
• Mangroves as sea walls that protect shoreline development;
• Braided floodplains as dikes and levees;
• Riparian trees as ‘cooling towers’ for overheated currents
• Wetlands for treatment of industrial effluent.
These describe that unseen dimension, which I call “natural infrastructure.”
Natural infrastructure does not necessarily replace built infrastructure, but it may be the more affordable and durable option. Your choice is rarely “either-or,” but rather “both-and.” Natural infrastructure complements engineered designs as a counterpart, working hand in hand, side by side as an equal,
By investing in a combined package of natural and civil infrastructure, you boost your budget. You save money because you avoid costly mistakes. You reduce impacts that are unacceptable and unnecessary.
- New York City avoided a $6 billion bill for an energy-intensive filtration plant, by investing $1.5 billion to protect gravity-fed drinking water at its rural source.
- Denver Colorado saved $100 million in treatment plants by investing $40 million in the Rocky Mountain forest catchment.
- Drought-struck Australian cities invested hundreds of millions in the Murray-Darling basin to restore and secure the resilience of billion-dollar industries.
Beyond rich countries, natural infrastructure can be the choice of developing nations, too.
- Beijing invested US$ 1.5 billion in protecting its watershed as natural infrastructure.
- Tanzanian authorities invested in upstream riparian health of the Pangani River to secure downstream flows, fisheries, and hydropower.
- Quito, Ecuador invested municipal water funds in a vast nature reserve and catchment above the city, ensuring growth of long-term financial capital.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. Like all things worth doing, natural infrastructure takes practice. Working with people can be messier than working with engineers’ drawings. Yet as you incentivize the capacities of people in the watershed, you build the institutional foundation they need to secure their own water. And there is a fundamental difference from investing in concrete and steel.
Natural infrastructure lasts longer.
Unlocking the potential of natural infrastructure may be cheap, but never ‘free.’ Early front end investments earn higher yields later on. What is free is the opportunity to learn from our experience.
Twelve years ago this week, the IUCN delegation arrived at the Second World Water Forum in The Hague and alongside the World Water Council launched the Vision for Water and Nature. The Vision called for integration of development and biodiversity conservation, leveraging nature’s gifts to help meet people’s need for water security.
IUCN lacks the budget and technical expertise of either a development agency or a global engineering firm. Instead, our assets are a global network of more than 1,000 IUCN government and NGO Members and partners; and a conviction that nature wasn’t just for looking at, but it was also for working with. So we set aquatic ecosystems as the foundation on which to build integrated water resources management. With nature at the centre, we turned vision into action, equity, governance, empowerment, and resilience.
Our proving ground for implementation and adaptive management – we say ‘learning by doing’ – did not place in theory. That would have felt good, been easy, and accomplished nothing. Instead, IUCN and our partners began:
• to broker peace in the Nigerian tributaries of Lake Chad, giving fractious farmers and herders a say over river allocations in a way that restored flows and fisheries;
• to help Guatemalans form micro-watershed committees to take ownership of, and invest in, their streams, putting down roots for long-term security;
• to engage Volta River communities across national borders to stop disputes, and start to cooperate to prevent the fluctuating current from eroding their farmland;
• to empower stakeholders in the shadow of Kilimanjaro to determine water allocations more equitably and efficiently than officials could by themselves.
• to document claims by parties in the Okavango Delta as a way to order and define a rights-based system for access, use, and shared dominion;
• to help downstream communities in the Mekong basin, record losses and needs in a way that improved upstream decisions about flows and negotiation.
By investing in natural infrastructure, you invest in the people closest to its pulse. They know their river, and their neighbours, far better than you do. With the right incentives, the right institutions, you empower people to become part of the solution.
Leaders in water are turning their attention now to the water-food-energy nexus. Let us not lose sight of what works, or re-learn what we now know. If we invest in people and natural infrastructure we make decisions about the nexus more manageable and more responsive to shrinking supplies and rising demands. From complexity emerge new collaborations, new alliances across borders and new finance and investment.
In a changing climate with unprecedented stress, we discover that we can’t force resilience by building from the top down. By investing in the diversity of nature and those who depend on that foundation, we secure the roots of resilience from the bottom up.
Three months from now, at the Rio+20 Conference, the world will seek pathways to a green economy.
Given the urgency, it is tempting to conclude with a call for a new integrated programme. But we really haven’t got the time. We’ve been at this for a dozen years. To elevate water to the comere of decisions at Rio, don’t seek any more ‘visions.’ We know what to do, because we’ve done it. We can illustrate what has already worked. Through natural infrastructure, water lays the foundation for equity and development.
Every human, now and in the future, should have enough clean water for drinking and sanitation, and enough food and energy at reasonable cost. Nature immeasurably strengthens our ability to meet these basic needs – but not if we squander our natural capital through blindness to the unseen wealth at our fingertips.
So in the days ahead, do not ask how planners should build and manage hard development projects – but then as an afterthought take pity on aquatic ecosystems.
Ask, rather, from the onset how nature can be a solution, how natural infrastructure can help you design and build and manage and use existing water systems for the sake of our human development, our tight budgets, and our thirsty populations.
Nature never asks for our pity. Yet as we have discovered, nature is always more than ready to work as our equal partner.
That’s when something magical happens. As we grasp the enormous unseen potential in nature, we begin to unlock the even greater potential within ourselves.
Just following her speech on the opening day of the World Water Forum in Marseille, Julia Marton-Lefèvre explains why the World Water Forum is such an important event for IUCN.
She added that it was good for IUCN to take its place on the podium with major business people and politicians.