The value of natural infrastructure

Updated on: Jan 11, 2018


Its cost advantages over grey infrastructure are huge. It develops resilient communities by conserving water, soil and habitat

Natural disasters cause huge losses annually and there have been growing concerns over the measures needed, particularly with respect to the ecosystem in which society, business and government exist.

In India, approximately 805 million people were affected by around 288 weather-related disasters during 1995-2015. In order to avoid risk and damage, and to build resilience to these disasters, natural infrastructure solutions are increasingly being considered and implemented.

Natural infrastructures are planned and managed natural or semi-natural systems, which can provide benefits or even replace a functionality that is traditionally provided by grey infrastructures. These natural or green infrastructures can be areas such as forests, agricultural lands, estuaries, coastal landscapes and wetlands.

These solutions comprises 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; phyto-remediation to rehabilitate contaminated soil and water.

Multi-pronged approach

Natural infrastructure (NI) solutions arrayed across different scales, from buildings to landscapes in rural, urban, terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine areas, hold huge potential.

At the local level, NI solutions include permeable pavements, trees and rainwater harvesting systems. Vegetative solutions consists of green roofs, rain gardens, and bio-swales, which can be used in cities and industrial parks to balance stormwater conveyance systems. Rain gardens capture rainwater in a depression in the ground, and prevent flash floods and erosion in streams by slowing down storm water. Bioswales are made along roadsides so that rainwater from the road flows towards them and percolates into the ground.

NI solutions include constructed wetlands that are used for industrial processed water and waste-water treatment, substituting traditional waste-water treatment infrastructure. Oyster reefs and seagrass beds can decrease erosion and protect coastal areas from storms, while also filtering contaminated seawater and supporting local fisheries.

Natural infrastructures offer numerous benefits to society. For example, a well-managed forest can regulate water for drinking, agriculture and energy, store carbon, support pollinators and provide recreational and tourism opportunities.

Further, it can increase biodiversity and improve storm resilience. Natural infrastructure can help avoid water pollution that would otherwise need to pass through a conventional water treatment plant, thus reducing costs.

Many cities have a water fund focused on NI solutions that has resulted in significant savings every year by reducing water treatment costs. NI solutions often require less initial capital investment and reduced operations and maintenance costs. These solutions often require fewer human resources for oversight.

As more businesses invest in NI solutions, the demand for related skills will increase, resulting in new job opportunities. Additionally, NI can contribute to new natural resource-based industries, such as commercial fisheries. NI solutions offer the social licence to operate businesses and enhance public health. For example, parks and permeable pavements reduce noise pollution by dampening traffic noise. NI investments can even lead to increase in property values due to the enhanced aesthetics of landscapes.

Towards historic milestones

We are now working towards achievement of several historic milestones, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. Mapping and assessing NI solutions is essential to ensure that their true values are considered in policies and decision-making across sectors. For example, a hydro-power company’s dependence on a forested watershed can measure days of operation lost or costs of turbine repair per year because of sedimentation of waterways due to deforestation.

Businesses have the opportunity to contribute to the SDGs particularly SDG9 (resilient infrastructure), SDG 13 (climate change) and SDG 15 (reverse land degradation) while addressing business needs and deriving benefits from NI solutions. Businesses can integrate disaster risk into their management practices as indicated in the recently adopted ‘Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’.

Global infrastructure spending amounts to trillions of dollars a year. Diverting a small fraction of this towards NI solutions (ecosystem restoration, creation and enhancement) can be a new business driver and primary source of environmental finance worldwide. Countries can develop and implement national or regional strategies similar to the likes of Europe’s Green Infrastructure Strategy.

Decision-makers increasingly have access to tools and information such as the Natural Capital Protocol, World Bank WAVES programme, and WBCSD Natural Infrastructure for Business platform.

The ability and needs related to measuring and accounting natural capital will vary, so multiple, flexible, yet rigorous approaches will be required for effective decision-making.

Many countries and municipalities have regulatory guidelines in place for NI solutions. In some cities, governments and companies pay for ecosystem services to secure clean water supplies instead of paying for expensive greywater treatment facilities and processes.

Similarly, reinsurance products pricing can be disrupted if the benefits and values of natural infrastructure for reducing risks from certain hazards are integrated into risk models.

Working together

Many of these steps are being taken, but often in isolation. Harmonisation of tools and languages and collaboration among different stakeholders such as accountants, scientists, government, economists, NGOs and business leaders will be necessary in order to connect the dots. These collaborations will be necessary to create synergetic approaches, reporting mechanisms and tools that are compatible for assessing progress toward sustainable development across all sectors and regions.

The time for action has arrived as we have the commitment and momentum for a natural world that provides benefits to society. There is a need to strength informational cooperation between cities or countries across both the developed and developing worlds.

Finally, it is imperative to develop and build a collaborative environment for public institutions and private companies for the success of these initiatives, as re-imagining ways to integrate nature with the communities will help in building resilience.

Bordoloi is the Kuwait market leader for EY’s Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS) practice. Sarmah is an independent management consultant focusing on Sustainability and Resource Productivity. The views are personal

Published on May 19, 2017
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