Nature-based solutions to tackle the water crises

Today marks World Water Day, the UN's international day to acknowledge the global water and sanitation crisis and unite the world to accelerate progress on reducing water insecurity. This year's theme focusses on encouraging countries to make commitments and take robust actions towards enhancing water security and sanitation. 

More than 733 million people live in countries with high and critical levels of water stress. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 shows that if we continue to fail on water targets, then by 2030, 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion people will lack safely managed sanitation and 1.9 billion people will lack basic hand hygiene facilities. Lack of progress on water threatens the entire sustainable development agenda, and we need to globally quadruple our efforts to meet the global targets. It is further impinging on other sustainable development goals and jeopardising the entire sustainable development agenda.  

This week, delegates from around the world will be meeting in New York at the UN 2023 Water Conference, as part of a series of high-level discussions and workshops to progress a strong plan of action on global water usage and sanitation.

A localised but system-level approach to safeguard water

There is no life, and no development, without water - from drinking to sustain ourselves to growing our food to sustaining ecosystems and building energy systems. Sometimes referred to as the water-energy-food-ecosystem (WEFE) nexus, these systems are deeply interconnected but, too often, managed separately. Fragmented approaches to water system management jeopardise sustainability and can increase tensions across related sectors.  

To drive future policy around this interconnected nexus, in 2020 the European Union launched the Rexus project – supported by UNEP-WCMC and a consortium of 17 scientific institutions and partners. Rexus is now scoping research and conducting initial collaborative assessments across five pilot river basin areas in Europe and Latin America – the Lower Danube (Romania/Bulgaria/Serbia), Isonzo/Soca (Italy/Slovenia), Nima (Colombia), Peninsular Spain and Pinios (Greece). 

For example, the Nima river is one of Colombia’s most important river tributaries for supporting agriculture and as a result is at high risk of potential climate and water scarcity issues.  

To assess environmental and water management challenges for the watershed area – and drive adaptive solutions - in-country Rexus team members are now consulting with local communities to diagnose its status and challenges, and develop short, medium and long-term solutions.

How UNEP-WCMC is helping to bring nature-based solutions into water nexus planning

UNEP-WCMC is leading the Rexus project’s work on assessing and incorporating nature-based solutions (NbS) to WEFE planning and adaptation, with the aim of developing a decision support tool to demonstrate various advantages and returns on investment from NbS, in comparison with and alongside traditional “grey” infrastructure solutions, and incorporating NbS into overall strategies which will be a mixture of green and grey approaches. Working with partners, we have been scoping the methodological components of this new tool. 

So far, we have conducted a review of tools and platforms used by climate change adaptation, NbS and WEFE planners and designed a roadmap guide outlining the ecosystem services NbS safeguard and key considerations for implementation. Our project team is also actively inputting NbS expertise and guidance materials into ongoing workshops with the five Rexus pilot areas to help them identify and refine NbS options for infrastructure solutions.    

Our next step will be the application of our research methodologies and components within the pilots themselves, over 2023 and 2024.

Often decision tools used in environmental and WEFE systems planning can ignore important variables that are key NbS benefits, over traditional ‘grey’ solutions – especially outcomes that are difficult to monestise, such as improvements to nature and the wellbeing across communities. UNEP-WCMC’s Rexus project work will create a robust and holistic tool so schemes can incorporate these important evaluation strategies and NbS considerations.

UNEP-WCMC NbS Programme Officer Juliet Mills 

Have a query?