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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Global water crisis: We need to tap into nature

Stuart Orr

22 Mar 2018

By Stuart Orr, Leader, WWF Freshwater Practice | 22 March 2018

Tackling the global water crisis doesn’t lie in constructing more concrete infrastructure to keep our taps running, but rather in us tapping into the solutions nature has to offer.


Devastating floods in Southeast Asia. Unending drought in southern and eastern Africa. Water flowing through the streets of Paris. The looming threat of Day Zero in Cape Town. A mere glance at news headlines in recent months is enough to see that normal is no longer the norm when it comes to global water risk, supply and scarcity.

And yet, our response to these crises hasn’t evolved. Dam more rivers. Concrete over more floodplains. Channel more funds into controlling more waterways. We appear to be stuck in a different kind of ‘water cycle’, our actions contributing to an increasingly vicious circle.

Today, the tried and tested formula of ‘divert, dredge, and dam’ is failing us, paving the way for future flood and drought disasters to become ever more destructive. Tackling the global water crisis doesn’t lie in constructing more concrete infrastructure to keep our taps running, but rather in us tapping into the solutions nature has to offer.

We have to revolutionize the way communities, companies and countries value rivers.

We have to abandon the strategies that have degraded so many of the world’s rivers, risking water supply to major global cities while also pushing some of the planet’s most iconic species to the brink.

Populations of freshwater species have crashed by 81 percent in the past 40 years. Wherever you look, species are slipping away: fish, frogs, turtles, river dolphins. And as our rivers and wetlands decline, we are losing one of our best defences against the threats of a warming world.

It is time we see rivers and other sources of freshwater as a ‘fount’ of sustainable solutions. Investing in green infrastructure can help mitigate the effects of climate change and improve human health and livelihoods. By investing in nature’s rivers, wetlands and watersheds, we can help mitigate droughts like Cape Town, a crisis scientists are warning could become the ‘new normal’.

We must protect forests in critical watersheds, safeguard springs and water sources to ensure water keeps flowing. By reconnecting rivers to their floodplains, we can help divert floodwaters away from cities. Restoring wetlands will help them soak up excess water, allowing it to seep back when dry times hit.

This ‘natural’ solution is the basis of China’s “sponge cities” initiative that aims to create urban areas that can soak up rainfall through sufficient wetlands and other “sponge-y” features. Currently being piloted in 30 cities, the goal is that, by 2030, 80 percent of those urban areas will be equipped to capture 70 percent of stormwater runoff.

Today, around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas. By 2050, this could increase to around 3 billion people – unless we act now. We need our rivers, wetlands and watersheds to be healthy and thriving for our societies, industries and economies to grow too.

In Alwar, India, nature-based solutions for water management and landscape restoration has seen productive farmland increase from 20 percent to 80 percent in the catchment area. And in Zimbabwe, sand dams built across the Sashane river bed, fitted with low-cost, solar-powered pumps, have helped increase the amount of water stored, successfully extending the cropping season – and yields – for local farmers.

There is no doubt that dams, levees and navigation channels have helped to transform societies, providing water for people, crops and businesses, and helping to keep our cities and communities safe from floods and droughts. But we are now in the 21st century and continuing to rely on 20th century infrastructure and 19th century thinking will not help solve the immense challenges of today.

In the Adriatic region alone, around 2,700 dams are currently planned, primarily for hydropower. Imagine the impact these could collectively have on rivers and freshwater ecosystems across the region. It’s time to push back against conventional strategies that promote poorly planned dams in Europe and elsewhere, particularly as the cost of alternative and more sustainable, renewable energy sources are plunging.

This Earth Hour, people are uniting across borders to save the Drava River in Croatia, the Mura River in Slovenia, the Valbona River in Albania, and the wetlands in Bosnia & Herzegovina. But this is only the start.

What we need is for people, businesses and governments everywhere to realize that concrete solutions to our water challenges will not come from concrete. We need to urgently double investment in sustainable water infrastructure, according to the recent report by UN High Level Panel on Water. We may be reaching the brink of our ability to tame nature, but nature’s ability to protect us is still extraordinary.

There is a reason we say nature knows best. This is our watershed moment – we must connect to nature and create from our waterways a pathway to a sustainable future for all.

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