Water guardians: innovative strategies to conserve our most precious resource

Water guardians: innovative strategies to conserve our most precious resource

Water security is an essential concept defined as ´the ability of humankind to protect sustainable access to water, ensuring well-being, livelihoods and socio-economic development´. This concept includes taking measures to protect the ecosystems that provide this vital resource and to secure the ecosystem services linked to water. It is not only about ensuring that there is enough water, but also that it meets high quality standards and meets the agricultural, industrial, energy and domestic needs of a specific region.

The preservation of environmental systems, which constitute the natural sources of water and related ecosystem services becomes essential.

The Global Water Partnership1, an international network dedicated to sustainable water management, describes a water secure world as one in which every person has access to safe and affordablewater for a healthy and productive life, and in which communities are protected from floods, droughts and water-borne diseases. It adds that water security promotes environmental protection and social justice in the face of conflicts over shared resources.

Source: Rául Sánchez Francés. CARTIF

The UN has sounded the alarm about the water deficit that is expected in the future. According to its estimates, by 2030 the Earth could face a 40% deficit if current consumption patterns are not changed. Population growth, especially in urban areas, has increased pollution that affects water quality, not only through air pollution, but also through changes in land use. Water consumption has doubled in the last half century, and it is estimated that by 2025 at least two-thirds of the world´s population will live in areas of high water stress.

Climate change also poses an additional risk to water security, reducing water availability and making it increasingly unpredictable in many parts of the world, leading to major supply problems. In addition, extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, affect rich and poor alike, disrupting traditional livelihoods and production patterns.

In Castilla y León, water security is already a critical issue, given the importance of our agricultural sector in food production, twhich is highly dependent on a constatn supply of water. The region´s agriculture relies heavily on the production of cereals, wine and horticultural products, and is being affected by climate variability, including prolonged droughts that deplete water resources and jeopardise the sustainability of crops. Similarly, the region is experiencing increasing water stress aggravated by climate change, which threatens food production and affects the balance of the rural economy, thus increasing the already pressing problem of depopulation of our villages or rural environments.

Farmers face an increasingly difficult challenge: maintaining productivity in a context of limited water resources. Many have had to adapt their techniques, investing in efficient irrigation and crop diversification to mitigate the impact of droughts. However, these solutions come at a high cost that not everyone can afford, highlighting the urgency of finding more inclusive approaches. This is where Nature based Solutions (NbS) come in, offering a sustainable alternative to follow.

Source: CARTIF

Nature-Based Solutions are vital to address these problems in a creative way and at the same time provide additional sustainability benefits. UNESCO, in its World Water Development Report, argues that NbS can improve water supply and quality while mitigating the impact of natural disasters. A clear example is restored watersheds and wetlands, which act as natural filters for water purification. By mimicking natural processes, NbS improve water availability and quality and reduce water-related risks.

It is essential to highlight the importance of conserving wetlands and restoring river basins the region, as they act as natural filters, improving water quality and regulating flow in times of drought. Techniques such as agro-forestry and crop rotation can also be explored to maintain soil fertility and reduce dependence on intensive irrigation systems. These practices mimic natural processes and help maintain a balance between production and conservation.

The Global Water Security Index (GWSI)3 , which integrates criteria such as water availability, accesibility, security and quality, standardises water vulnerabilities and risks, helping to identify priority areas where action is urgently needed. This index also highlights the need for innovative strategies that combine green infrastructure with traditional solutions, maximising value for society.

Soluciones basadas en la naturaleza en Sassari
Proyecto NATMED. FIA system (Forested Infiltration Area). SbN implemented in Sassari (Cerdeña – Italia).  Source: Raúl Sánchez Francés.

It is also important to highlight the relevance and scope of water security in urban settings, where it encompasses five dimensions: environmental, domestic, economic, urban and resilience to natural disasters. All these aspects make the lack of water security one of the greatest risks to global prosperity and underline the urgent need to take care of the natural resource “water”. This implies sustainbale management, responsible consumption, combating degradation and reuse.

In the Natural Resources and Climate Area of CARTIF, we develop diverse projects related to sustainable water management as basis for water insurance, both for human consumption and for agricultural consumption.

We coordinate the PRIMA NAT-med project, in which we aim to develop, implement and validate a set of Nature-based Solutions, combined in Full Water Cycle-NbS (FWC-Nbs), integrated in existing water infrastructures (grey or natural) and based on specific phases of the water cycle, to optimise the provision of water-related ecosystem services (quality and quantity) and water-dependent ecosystem services (social, economic and environmental aspects), empowering stakeholders and local communities in the Mediterranean region. NATMed will also demonstrate the effect of different SbN-CCA in five case studies located in Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Algeria.

Similarly, through our CIRAWA project coordination work, we work in 8 regions in Cape Verde, Ghana, Senegal and The Gambia to improve agriculture by developing new agroecology-based practices that build on existing local and scientific knowledge to help create more resilient food supply chains in West Africa, and where sustainable water resource management is essential.

Puntos de acceso al agua para agricultura. Proyecto CIRAWA
CIRAWA project. Access points to water for agriculture at the Maio Island (Cape Verde). Source: Raúl Sánchez Francés.

From the Natural Resources Area of CARTIF, like many other ´guardians of water`, we work to improve water security, using Nature-based Solutions, as part of our vital commitment to the future of the planet. Only through intelligent and collaborative management can we build a world in which every person has access to water and can live with dignity, ensuring that future generations will also enjoy it.

1 https://www.gwp.org/

2 WWAP & ONU-Agua. (2018). Informe Mundial de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Desarrollo de los Recursos Hídricos 2018: Soluciones basadas en la naturaleza para la gestión del agua. París: UNESCO.

3 Measuring global water security towards sustainable development goals

Recovering our link with nature

Recovering our link with nature

In the end, I coukd not resist…I went to see AVATAR 2. Even in 3D! The idea of recalling the sensations I experienced 13 years ago as a spectator of one of the greatest technological advances in animation of the 21st century, won over the laziness of being inside a cinema for a whopping three hours. However, this time I wanted to see how something that already caught my attention in the first film of the saga had evolved: being able to establish a direct link with nature. Amazing!

Having seen the “movie” and coming back to reality, I believe that we have never lost our link with nature but have ignored it thinking that it was no longer necessary for us and that only technological advances would make this world a better place, disregarding our natural essence. It is important to know that any measure developed to protect an ecosystem, and the biodiversity that inhabits it, will protect us as part of that biodiversity and will only improve our living conditions.

Source: Raúl Sánchez Francés

Currently there is a growing need to get in touch with nature, either due to being fed up with a sedentary and overly urban life, to practice sports or to come into contact with nature and the trees that inhabit it, but without knowing the multiple benefits that his “forest or nature bath” is providing. Although it is believed that the concept of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku in Japanese) seems to have an ancient origin, it was not until the early 1980s when the Japanese forest authorities promoted the concept to bring people closer to the benefits of the forest. The feeling of well-being that we perceive walking through the forest has a proven scientific explanation. Already in the middle of the 20th century it was shown that certain conifers were capable of purifying/disinfecting their environment by generating a natural antibiotic (phytoncides), mainly in response to the attack they continually receive from fungi. This has a a direct consequence that the presence of trees in residential areas improves the health of its inhabitants.

Source: Raúl Sánchez Francés

There is clear evidence about the essential role that green and blue spaces play in promoting a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. In urban and peri-urban areas, natural spaces reduce exposure to potentially harmful factors such as excessive heat, noise, and air pollution. Studies have shown that green areas surrounding urban spaces are associated with lower mortality.

Similarly, various experimental and observational studies have shown that exposure to nature is associated with improvements in cognition, brain activity, blood pressure, sleep, physical activity and mental health. Special relevance is given to the improvement of mental health (anxiety, depression and stress) due to activity in nature. An increase in well-designed, equitably distributed adn accesible green/blue spaces, as promoted by the concept of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), is an important factor in preserving and improving mental health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic recession have affected the mental health of the population, with an increase un symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders, and have highlighted the need to improve our understanding of the specific types and characteristics of nature that are key to mental health.

At CARTIF, we have been working for some time on the re-naturalization of our cities, environments and all those inhabited spaces that have lost their natural quality, with the purpose of making our cities more livable…but in a natural way and in coexsitence with nature. Projects like Urban GreenUP, MyBuildingisGreen, NATMED…are a sample of this.

Taking all this into account, the medical prescription of forest bathing, of solutions based on nature or what we have called therapies based on nature (Nature based Therapies) is getting closer.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Odile Rodríguez de la Fuente, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente´s daughter, about the bond with nature that her father instilled in her and her sisters and that she still maintains, from her facet as a disseminator of nature, which she performs in a fantastic way. It was undoubtely Félix who perceived the disconnect between human beings and nature at a key moment in the country´s growth, which made his work even more difficult but which has allowed him to leave a deeper and more lasting mark, laying the foundations for the sought-after link with nature.

It is about looking for real and deep connections between the human being and the natural world, which go beyond cultural work in the field or some gardening experiences such as the erroneous perception that tomato plants slowly fatten when being caressed… as if it was a test of love. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you caress a tomato plant every day, its vertical growth slows down and its stem thickens, but it is nothing more than a natural reaction to a fictitious load from the wind.

However, we still have time to protect the nature that surrounds us, to bring nature closer to our cities and living spaces, and to reconnect, to link ourselves with nature.

The re-naturing of our cities

The re-naturing of our cities

Currently, the 54% of world population lives im cities, and it is foreseen this figure rises by 70% in the middle of this century. Cities have been converted in denatured places in which is difficult to find interconnected nartural surroundings. Current urbanistic model presents one of the most serius global challenges by 21th Century: rapidly and changing development of industrial activities as well as the un controlled urban sprawl cause many social, environmental and health problems.

Cities are facing to environmental challenges related to poor air quality, heat island effect, increasing of flood risk, increasing of extreme phenomena frequency and intensity, the industrial areas derelict and the issues of social context (increasing of criminality, social exclusión, inequality, marginality, poverty, and urban surroundings degradation). Effects of the population concentration in cities are generally invisible for the mayority of cictizenship, however these risks remain latent and it appear in media and public opinión when it have caused seriuos problems and the environmental restoration is more difficult.

In many of the cities of the world the air quality has improved considerably in the past decades. Nonetheless, air quality is affecting to health of people and sorrounding. In Europe, the air pollution from industry has been replaced by the road traffic and heating pollution. Therefore, Air Quality  is a common environmental issue in large and medium-size cities around the world.

Another consequence of climate change and population accumulation in cities is the “heat island effect”: urban areas hotter than nearly rural zones due to the urban topography and materials of building and pavements. Annual average temperature in a big city could be 1 – 3 oC higher than surroundings areas. Likewise, during nights in summer time, the variation in temperature can reach 12 oC. This effect has important consequences, but we will talk about them another time.

Regarding urban spaces management, the different kinds of abandoned and deteriorated places in cities imply an important challenge. In these areas, the environmental conflict is focussed on environmental issues like soils pollution and specific emissions, which just searches the not adaptive reuse of these spaces. This situation forgets the social side of the problem, which induces scepticism and rejection in the citizens.

All of these problems can be dealt at the same way as the nature would do it, via solutions developed for thousands of years (Nature Based Solutions, NBS). In this way, it will achieve to reconvert urban areas in places in which nature can be present again and the citizen can enjoy it.

NBS will foster the sustainable urbanism, it will retrofit degraded areas, it will develop climate change adaptation and mitigation actions and it will improve the management of climate change risks. The NBS like actions inspired in the Nature present a huge potential to be energy sustainable and to be resistant to climate changes, however their success will depend on their adaptation to local conditions.

Deployment of green corridors, carbon sinks, vegetal paths, urban farming activities, sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), green roofs and walls, urban green filters, water spaces, pollinator’s modules, etc. in cities will be common the coming years, in order to achieve a sustainable urbanism and the re-naturing of our cities.