This paper discusses how natural infrastructure, the networks of land and water that provide services to people, can help decision makers and infrastructure managers address interconnected challenges facing water, energy and food systems, often referred to as the “nexus”. Natural infrastructure can help maintain an adequate supply of clean water, which in turn supports energy and agricultural systems. Presenting the most recent developments, studies, and approaches regarding natural infrastructure, the paper examines reasons and ways to include natural infrastructure in this nexus, challenges that have prevented increased investment in natural infrastructure, and recommendations for moving forward.
Natural infrastructure helps to address some of the urgent challenges faced by today’s infrastructure systems:
- Natural infrastructure can provide many of same services as built infrastructure, including the ability to purify water, control water temperature, minimize sedimentation, regulate urban storm water runoff, reduce the impact of floods, hold and slowly release water into and from groundwater aquifers, sequester carbon, and provide food.
- Given that at least $1.32 trillion a year in water infrastructure investments are needed to keep up with business-as-usual (WEF 2013), it has become increasingly important to consider how nature can substitute, safeguard, or complement engineered infrastructure projects in ways that are proven to be effective and cost-competitive.
- As climate change, population growth, and increasing consumption of resources create new threats with implications across the nexus, natural infrastructure provides flexibility that enables adaptive management that is necessary to cope with changing conditions, and is more likely to sustain benefits in the midst of uncertainty and increased variability.
The conservation, restoration and sustainable management of natural infrastructure is a viable and increasingly popular strategy to secure and enhance water, energy and food systems worldwide.
- Recent studies estimate that the global community invests about $12.3 billion per year to protect, manage, and restore natural infrastructure to secure water resources (Forest Trends 2014).
- Decision-support tools, guidance, and willing partners exist to help design and implement natural infrastructure projects.
Yet, decision makers do not regularly evaluate options to invest in natural infrastructure. • Currently, investments in natural infrastructure are narrow in scope and do not sufficiently account for the potential conflicts between providing adequate food, energy, and water services. Forest Trends (2014) reported that the energy and agriculture sectors collectively contributed less than 1% of all natural infrastructure investments in 2013, which suggests these sectors are missing opportunities to invest in natural infrastructure for its cross-sector benefits.
- Decision makers often lack information to adequately evaluate and compare natural infrastructure options to business as usual, and therefore default to better understood engineered solutions.
- Natural infrastructure introduces complexity and uncertainty into system design that engineers are not wholly equipped to address, because it often requires multistakeholder engagement and longer time horizons.
- A mismatch between the priorities and incentives of potential investors and the benefits offered by natural infrastructure has stymied the development of natural infrastructure projects.
- Lack of clarity on how natural infrastructure aligns with many regulatory systems has also dissuaded investment.
To increase investment in natural infrastructure, and consequently reap the multiple crosssector benefits of this strategy, champions from industry, communities, governments, utilities, academia, financial institutions, international development organizations, and conservation groups need to:
- Identify opportunities where investing in natural infrastructure makes economic sense.
- Communicate successes and challenges as a contribution to a robust body of literature on the business case of investing in natural infrastructure.
- Institutionalize the assessment of natural infrastructure in food, water and energy system design.
- Establish the enabling conditions necessary to inspire confidence in natural infrastructure as a feasible strategy.
These actions could transform the way infrastructure systems are designed, built, and maintained. New partnerships that proactively identify opportunities to invest in natural infrastructure, leverage new sources of financing, and reform policy and standards will broaden investment in natural infrastructure. In the coming decade, industry and governments should institutionalize investment in natural infrastructure as a core strategy to address food, water and energy security and move towards mixed portfolios of complementary natural and engineered infrastructure.
All papers have benefited from lead authors and reviewers from different institutions and disciplines to ensure multi-sectoral and disciplinary perspectives.
- Clean technology for nexus infrastructure solutions - Simon Howarth, Michael Bruce Beck, and Rodrigo Villarroel Walker
- Water stewardship and corporate engagement in the nexus - Stuart Orr and James Dalton
- Influencing pathways of investments for the nexus - Kala Fleming and Alan Kalton
- Natural Infrastructure in the nexus - Suzanne Ozment, Kara DiFrancesco, Todd Gartner
- Governance of the nexus - Dipak Gyawali
- Learning from the nexus dialogue - Damian Crilly, Katharine Cross, Mark Smith, James Dalton, Carolina Latorre, Raul Glotzbach, Rebecca Welling, and Dan Wang
IWA Network website
- World Resources Institute
Nexus Dialogue Synthesis Papers