Submitted by James Dalton on Tue, 03/26/2019

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) have gathered attention over the last decade with IUCN, the EU, The World Bank and the UN, among many players, exploring the different considerations necessary to implement nature as a solution.

NbS employ strategies that impact land management, often across whole systems and transboundary landscapes or jurisdictions, involving a great variety of actors. Central to these discussions, naturally, are technical and sustainability issues, and how nature can help contribute to deliver against the ambition of the Sustainable Developing Goals (SDGs).

Yet, a big challenge facing the implementation of NbS projects, and more often neglected in discussion and policy design, is the social acceptance of these interventions. In many contexts, adopting NbS can demand substantial behavioural changes, moving away from traditionally better understood options such as grey infrastructure for river basin development. These require individual, community, and often larger institutional change.

One of the main obstacles facing NbS acceptance and implementation is the limited knowledge of what these solutions actually look like on the ground, and what their associated benefits are over time. Benefits of NbS are not easily monetized which undermines the potential for revenue capture and flows to be transparently analysed. This can in turn cause confusion around who will benefit from the intervention, how benefits can be shared and what this looks like over time (see Video Natural Infrastructure Solutions for Climate Change Adaption).  The equitable sharing of nature based solutions remains a concern for some, where landowners implement activities that benefit their land, but not others, or where publicly funded watershed restoration projects bring benefits to public and private stakeholders alike, but where the value of these investments cannot be fully captured back to the river basin.

One barrier to capturing the full value of NbS is how interventions are designed, implemented and monitored. If NbS interventions are not co-designed or adapted to the needs of local populations then management overtime of these interventions will not be sustainable. Top-down systems where there are inadequate mechanisms for local populations’ and farmers’ participation in decision-making, or where third parties push for interventions but have no direct ‘stake’ in the basin other than extracting benefits from it are likely to slow progress.  This is especially the case where interventions, payments structures, benefits and decisions are not transparent.  Local populations are often neglected under large built infrastructure interventions.  NbS must do better than this, incorporating local interactions and decision making as well as broader collective decisions at larger scales. (see Water Infrastructure Solutions for the Tana Basin).  

Contrary to grey infrastructure projects in river basins, NbS rely on local communities to implement, manage and assess interventions, since it is farmers and local populations that are the custodians of the resources, responsible for implementing land stewardship practices. Women, in particular, play a central role in natural resource management, and have extensive knowledge about water resources and related ecosystems, as a result of their deep experience using and managing the resource for productive and domestic needs (see Better the Balance, Better the World). So to ensure acceptance of NbS at the local level, local communities as well as local government, need to be engaged in decision-making processes for designing and implementing NbS at scale.

In certain situations, investing in NbS may empower communities by tapping into local knowledge and traditional land management practices to inform the design of such interventions.  Where possible, NbS interventions should be built on the foundations of traditional knowledge, building the capacity of alternative sources of land management practices. There is also the possibility for job creation through capacity building and empowering local communities through NbS interventions. A solid evidence base with favourable cost-benefit assessment, natural capital accounting and valuing water ecosystems and the services they provide is needed to show the importance of investing in NbS for water management and to ensure buy-in by all stakeholders. In the longer-term, a vision of NbS positioned within water challenges and opportunities is required for urban and rural development and takes into account climate change.

Fostering local collaboration and engaging local stakeholders in decision-making and policy setting can further help to build a strong framework for effective adoption of NbS. Good governance of NbS, though, requires creating local partnerships and identifying clear roles within those partnerships – women’s knowledge of the resource base can play a strong role here. In addition, local governments need the capacity to implement, manage and monitor interventions on the ground – working with both communities at the local level and decision-makers at national level to align policy and practice (see Water Infrastructure Solutions for the Volta Basin).

This article is based on a session organized by IUCN, the French Water Partnership (FWP) and Rare, at Stockholm World Water Week 2018. The session aimed to highlight the adoption and social acceptance of NbS projects, and considering a theoretical framework to show that grey and green solutions are complementary when NbS are socially accepted and normalized. The event aimed at developing a strategy to better take into account local stakeholders both in conceptualizing and implementing NbS projects, including how to shift local stakeholders’ (donors, government authorities, local populations…) attitudes and behaviours associated with NbS.

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