Utility insights into nature-based options

© Skanderborg Forsyning

Utilities around the world have shown that nature-based approaches can be justified economically and deliver wider benefits when compared to traditional infrastructure. The Source heard from Andrea Erickson, of The Nature Conservancy, which has collaborated with IWA to produce a new report.


As the global lead for water security at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Andrea Erickson, Managing Director – Water Security, heads the organisation’s activity to develop and promote the use of nature-based solutions, including applications that help water utilities address water quantity and quality issues.

It is an area for which TNC sees great potential: Erickson explains that the organisation estimates there to be around 1000 cities globally that could be using nature-based solutions and achieving a positive return on investment. “We are not at scale, clearly,” she says.

“The interest of The Nature Conservancy is to help find ways to promote nature-based solutions where and when it makes sense for the utility companies.”

Mostly, this is achieved through projects on the ground led by Erickson’s peers and colleagues in the regions. Some of the work is undertaken through global partnerships with corporations or key associations – for example, the current initiative with the IWA, which has just produced a new case study-based report.

TNC has its sights set on that level of application, supporting utilities in achieving cost efficiencies and delivering water in a climate-adaptive way with multiple co-benefits. To do so means progressing further along an imaginary curve mapping awareness and uptake of nature-based approaches. “We are somewhere along the curve, passing through awareness into really saying that people are seeing it as an accepted approach,” says Erickson.

The Nature
Conservancy Managing
Director Water Security,
Andrea Erickson

This current status on progress with such solutions frames the report prepared with IWA. “This publication is trying to help move us along that scale, knowing that the best way for utilities to learn about new approaches is to hear from their peers,” says Erickson. “This is an attempt to say there are a lot of people out there who already use nature-based solutions – they have a very strong business case around that, they have worked with their regulators, and they have done it in diverse environments.”

Case studies

The value of case studies, Erickson adds, is that “we all learn best from our peers, because we know that the person who is sharing this experience knows what it is to do our job”. The case studies highlight utilities that have tested this approach and had positive outcomes, sharing their knowledge of barriers and learned lessons. The diversity of the case studies enables utilities to find examples similar to their own environment from which to learn, and a path forward that provides a direction for advice.

“Co-design is really important – working with the regulator and with the different authorities”

Even though the 10 case studies in the report are diverse, there are specific lessons learned that appear to be quite consistent, Erickson observes. “Of the top messages, co-design is really important – working with the regulator and the different authorities, the water division and the government. Early engagement with the regulatory authorities is key to making sure that you can move forward with nature-based solutions. Community engagement is critical, knowing that most of the time you are working in a watershed that may be beyond the normal jurisdiction of a utility, and maybe beyond their normal relationships and technical skills.”

Partnering to engage with communities or finding new ways to engage with them is, therefore, crucial. Another lesson is the importance of thinking differently about financing such initiatives. There is a need to consider how to enable the regulator to see the business case and, with that, identify financing options such as approving user fees or water fees to be directed to the most cost-efficient practices that can be achieved with nature-based solutions. Other financing sources, such as climate bonds, could also be explored.

There is an expectation that such solutions will not deliver in the way that engineering solutions are understood to deliver, but, in fact, they are quite well proven, Erickson notes. There is a need to ensure an appropriate baseline of information, so setting out a clear baseline, monitoring plan and appropriate time frame are vital. “The good thing about these solutions is that they are an appreciating asset. They get better at what they do over time, but they do take a while before they start providing returns.”

Understanding that cost-benefit curve and being able to monitor outcomes over time will enable comfort and belief in the wisdom of investing in nature-based solutions to grow.

Regulatory environments are also key factors, because, in some places, they produce disincentives. In such cases, it can be useful to enter a co-design process that may be undertaken for only a portion of the operations, one utility, and one community, rather than an entire country. Erickson observes: “It is important to see the regulatory environment for what it is – something that provides a framework for everybody who is operating. Sometimes, it has unintended barriers to nature-based solutions that have to be resolved.”

Agricultural opportunities

Agricultural practices in a watershed are often the strongest levers towards changing water quality or quantity for a city, she adds, so there is an opportunity to engage with such communities. “We find, generally – when we look very quickly across many watersheds to figure out which ones might have a positive return on investment (ROI) – it is often the presence of agriculture that indicates that this is probably a good positive ROI for utilities to look at in their watersheds.”

Working with farmers to change agricultural practices is relatively inexpensive compared to other interventions, such as building big reservoirs or protecting large forests. Agriculture is also the driver of landscape change, so the most efficient approach is to work directly with these actors. “It is like getting at the source, to work on the practices that will have the closest relation to the problems that you are seeing downstream, be that sediment loading or agricultural run-off from nutrients.” A host of other benefits accrue – investing in source water protection, working with agriculture, means working on food security and rural development and biodiversity issues.

Attracting the attention of agriculture brings up the question of how to design effective programmes for these initiatives. “I feel like there are many places in the world where voluntary actions could be very positive and very powerful,” Erickson notes. There may be agricultural communities that are desperate for investment and support, including marginalised smallholders. Once communication is established, the communities are happy to have the support, and there are various water funds or utilities that TNC works with “where it sees that to be the case; where there is a very strong value proposition to the agricultural community. At the same time, there is a very strong value proposition to the utility, so voluntary action seems to make the most sense as a starting point”.

Biodiversity benefits

TNC is inspired by the actions of the many utilities that are investing in their source watersheds, such as the city of New York voluntarily investing in the Catskills. “What happens in that catchment is of great importance, that we can connect those communities in a positive way.” TNC’s vision is of a world where both people and nature can thrive. “This is right in our sweet spot, if you will, trying to create a world where we see people and nature thrive. This, for us, feels like a good journey to be on. We believe there will be very significant benefits to biodiversity, carbon mitigation and rural development through the efforts of utilities and cities to invest in their source watersheds.”

Projects can bring tangible, measurable value, Erickson notes, but monetised value is not the whole story. Once it is established that such value exists, investments to improve water security and resources can be undertaken in ways that maximise biodiversity, for example. While this may not be monetised, it is possible to identify benefits to areas or systems, and increases in integrity and long-term viability. This is a message that a utility or a city can use – that, as well as better water security, their work is contributing to biodiversity gains or has a benefit to carbon mitigation. “The water sector deserves to get the most investment possible to be able to deliver on its core mission of water for people,” she adds. Of the core purpose of the report, she stresses: “We are very keen to continue to partner with the sector, to bring forward very good case study lessons learned, to seek out those who are interested in learning more, to come to IWA as the association that provides tools and skills. We are delighted to partner with IWA to bring forward what we know around nature-based solutions and to be helpful in that space that could benefit utilities worldwide.”

For more information on The Nature Conservancy, see www.nature.org/en-us/

For more information on IWA’s activity around nature-based solutions and working with TNC, see iwa-network.org/projects/nature-for-water-and-sanitation/



Nature for Water: A Series of Utility Spotlights

The new publication ‘Nature for Water: A Series of Utility Spotlights’, prepared by The Nature Conservancy and IWA, presents insights from ten case studies from around the world – in the UK, Belgium, Brazil, Australia, Ecuador, Italy, US, Ghana, Philippines, and Denmark.

The main categories of approaches considered in the report are: reforestation and forest conservation; riparian buffers or restoration; wetland construction, restoration and conservation; flood bypasses and green infrastructure for flow regulation; urban green infrastructure including green roofs, spaces and water harvesting; and targeted land protection.

The report draws on the case studies, and brings together needs, priorities for progress and knowledge gaps expressed by each utility across aspects key to the progress of nature-based solutions: knowledge, research/monitoring, communication, policy/regulatory, economic evaluation, and collaboration.

It offers shared lessons that can serve as core principles for other utilities and water users interested in the implementation or upscaling of nature-based solutions.

By publicising successful case studies, the IWA/TNC partnership fulfils a dual purpose of endorsing the utility efforts and providing actionable guidance for other water utilities striving to improve their sustainability and resilience.

To obtain the report, see: www.iwapublishing.com/books/9781789060812/nature-water-series-utility-spotlights