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Nature at Work: Natural Infrastructure Explained


Water is a vital natural resource which many developed countries have been taking for granted for decades. Fortunately, abundance of water is one of the natural advantages of Ireland. Due to the ageing water infrastructure and continuously increasing demand, costs for water management have hiked over the past few years. Presently, the responsibility of delivering reliable quality water lies upon a complex and antiquated water infrastructure network of 100,000 km of both water and waste water networks; and about 2,000 water and waste water plants.

Although, majority of the population in the country enjoys a supply of clean drinking water, Ireland’s water infrastructure has struggled to cope with increasing environmental and health standards along with growing economic needs. Reduction of investment in the water industry has led to infrastructural weaknesses and high leakage rates. In fairness, the existing system is operating at maximum capacity. Although, action needs to be taken sooner than later to be able to meet the long-term future demands of a growing population and potential climate change.

As per the World Resources Institute, governments and businesses across the globe will be investing an estimated US $10 trillion in water infrastructure over the next 15 years. Dams and treatment plants age with time and extreme weather conditions are a threat to these water resources. Such factors contribute to the growing need for lower-cost solutions to secure the required amount of clean water.

The South Pole Group, a leading multinational that specialises in reducing greenhouse gases and providing sustainability solutions to both public and private organisations proposed, that nature itself should also be included in such a vast investment portfolio. Sustainability can be built by making investments in engineered and natural infrastructure simultaneously so that they can work better together. Vast flow of majority of finances is put into conventional engineering approaches such as human-made dams but private financing for water could also include investment in natural infrastructure such as the wetlands, lakes, rivers, forests and floodplains that can store, filter and recycle water.

Natural Infrastructure Explained

When we talk about infrastructure, images of buildings, bridges, trains, highways etc. come into mind. Considering the bigger picture, the world’s infrastructure also includes forests, grasslands, coral reefs, wetlands, rivers and all other natural water bodies. Harnessing water and water-related services from such water bodies is basically known as ‘natural infrastructure’. Nature generates both quantifiable and unidentifiable value to humans which when protected and managed carefully, can prove to be a natural and comparatively cheaper alternative to most expensively built infrastructure.

Source Water Protection

The Nature Conservancy

Benefits from Natural Infrastructure; Examples

Research has shown that natural infrastructure solutions can often prove to be a better way of managing water for our ecosystems, human communities and economy than the traditional cement and steel approaches. After all, natural infrastructure can increase durability of prevailing water management systems. This concept of natural infrastructure for managing water came into light when a few cities in USA; namely – Denver, New York City, San Francisco, Yosemite-California, Portland, Aurora, Fort Collins, Raleigh etc., decided to save water at its source after a serious wildfire in Colorado. Droughts also occurred in a few other states. The US Forest Service (USFS) made commendable efforts in 2011 to protect the forests. It invested in watershed conservation so that water can be improved and managed at the source itself.

Let’s learn from New York city as an example. Despite the huge population of the city and the ever so busy city life, New Yorkers enjoy the cleanest and best tasting water anywhere. All thanks to the politicians, water managers and scientists who had the foresight to invest in forests and treat them as nature’s water treatment plants. Boreas Lake was originally maintained, in part, to keep the water supply secure for the city.  Now however, it also serves as an important habitat for animals and plants; as well as serving as a recreational spot. Today, New York City’s surface water is so clean that it makes it one of the only few cities in the States that doesn’t require filtration. Hence, saving any investment in extra man-made water treatment facilities.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, Natural Infrastructure in California

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, California

It’s crucial to understand that, maintaining natural infrastructure for water does not only mean clean and better water supply. It also means flood control, water temperature regulation and preservation and maintenance of our forests. Forests in return, help to anchor soil against erosion, help infiltration, reduce overland flow and minimise the impact of rain on snow events. The list of benefits does not end here.

Boreas Lake in Adirondack Park, Natural Infrastructure in New York

Boreas Lake in Adirondack Park, New York

What Needs to be Done

The water crisis topped the list when global risks were assessed at the World Economic Forum in 2016 Global Risks Report. There is inadequate investment mostly due to lack of information to evaluate natural infrastructure in terms of it’s ecological and economic benefits. The knowledge gap between project developers and fund managers needs to be bridged. This way the importance of investing in natural infrastructure can be acknowledged, especially by the private sector. The government, society, businesses and financial institutions need to focus on establishing enabling conditions to make natural infrastructure a way to solve the water crises. Right questions must be asked, for example; how much forest should be conserved to protect water and where; where should the investment be made, in forest conservation or in restoring watersheds; how to integrate natural infrastructure with built infrastructure to make the systems co-exist for each other’s benefit; what other ecosystem services will gain advantage because of investing in natural infrastructure.




Natural Infrastructure Guide – Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection (WRI)

The Irish Examiner

World Resources Institute (WRI)

Environment , Natural Infrastructure , Natural Water Infrastructure , Sustainable Development
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