“We all live with the objective of being happy” as Anne Frank put it quite simply. To me, nature brings quantifiable and unquantifiable happiness. The idea of natural infrastructure provides an alternative to the more expensive built infrastructure that would be more sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, cheaper and quite frankly a work of art.
What is Natural Infrastructure?
Natural infrastructures are planned and managed natural or semi-natural systems, which can provide benefits or even replace functionality that is traditionally provided by grey infrastructures (WBCSD, 2017).
Natural infrastructures solutions range from the coastal ecosystem (mangroves, coral reefs) for coastline protection from storms; watershed restoration by sustainable land management, for water quality regulation; afforestation for carbon sequestration; habitat restoration or conservation for pollination; phytoremediation to rehabilitate contaminated soil and water due to agriculture.
The need for natural infrastructure
We are currently grappling with water scarcity. During peak season, the erstwhile summer capital of the raj has seen a bucket of water being sold for Rs 500, and instantly catastrophic scenarios spring to my mind. Communities in East Delhi are already in conflict over water. Cape Town in Africa is a watershed moment, and built infrastructure such as dams have failed to provide the necessary water security that they were intended to provide.
In India, the concept of water delivery means boring holes into the ground without foreseeing that this an unsustainable practise, since water tables are plummeting. Natural infrastructural measures such as reconnecting rivers to floodplains and restoring wetlands, is a sustainable and cost-effective way to help rebalance the water cycle, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve human health and livelihoods. Built infrastructure such as embankments, storm walls other engineered structures additionally result in the loss of wetlands and its capacity to store water.
Now more than ever, the need is to build momentum to conserve, recognise and strengthen natural infrastructure and build them within development plans.
Wetland conservation for water security
In India, wetlands have been estimated to occupy less than 5% of country’s land surface, yet they play a critical role in ensuring water security. The water recharge from floodplains alone meets about one-third of utilizable water supply. Unfortunately, natural wetlands have been on a marked decline in the country – with nearly 30% lost in last three decades alone. In urban areas, every 1 km² of built-up area has meant the loss of 25 ha wetland area. When wetlands are degraded and lost, so is their capacity to provide water security, absorbing pollution, abate heat and secure biodiversity.
For many of us living in towns and cities television is bridging the gap with nature but what we don’t realise is that development is ‘burning the library of life’.
The future is bleak for wetlands, and as climate change is becoming a reality, many uncertainties are being generated, and the ability of human urban systems – including infrastructure, planning policies and to adapt has come into serious doubt. Moreover, professionals involved in design and planning professions, who are fundamentally and ethically responsible for the safety of residents, will need to understand how to develop strategies that will respond to a changing environment. The theme for world water day provides us with an opportunity to reflect back and re-think our strategies for development and use natural infrastructure such as wetlands for water security.
What can be done?
As human population rise, our hedonistic lifestyles create insatiable demands for which protection and conservation might not be enough. Enhancing natural infrastructure such as wetlands means giving space and protection to these ecosystems. We all can, in simple but meaningful ways, contribute to conserving nature by consuming less, choosing sustainable options to reduce our water consumption and, carbon and environmental footprints. Conserving wetlands is a critical pathway for a secure and resilient future.
Reference: World Business Council for Sustainable Development (2017). Incentives for Natural Infrastructure: Review of existing policies, incentives and barriers related to permitting, finance and insurance of natural infrastructure. Geneva