Cooperation fundamental to success of Nature Based Solutions

04 March 2020 - Published by Eric Boessenkool
February’s storm Ciara threatened to flood the Rhine delta city of Dordrecht, the Netherlands, with a combination of spring tide and a northwest storm surge. Fortunately, the Noordwaard Polder – a Nature Based Solution for flood defence – was in place to create ‘room for the river’ during high water. This development was the result of extensive cooperation among all involved parties and vested interests. The Building with Nature programme actively stimulates cooperation among disparate parties and disciplines to develop and build Nature Based Solutions for the growing challenges posed by climate change and extreme weather.

Human ingenuity
About a third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Since the middle ages, the people of this country have applied human ingenuity to “keeping their feet dry”, by building dykes and a network of pumps, ditches and canals to move the water to the nearest river where it can flow to the sea. The country’s landscape today is a monument to the water management and construction expertise of generations of engineers and water managers.

However, past engineering triumphs, such as the famed “Delta Works”, are unlikely to reach their intended end-of-life. Nature seems to have other ideas.

New challenge, new approach
Today we are confronted with the immense challenge of climate change, with drastic changes in the water cycle, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events. But the impact of climate change goes much further, with higher seasonal temperatures, more sunshine, reduced rainfall, a lower water table and ground subsidence. The cities are getting hotter, and invasive species are harming the natural ecosystem.

Fortunately, a new approach to tackling this challenge is gaining traction. It’s known as Building with Nature, and it is supported with European Union funding. We spoke with Egon Baldal, Project Leader for the BwN programme at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

“Why would you defend a coastline or river valley using natural processes?” asks Egon. “The answer is, because they are inherently flexible. When you fight nature, such as by erecting barriers, you have no alternative when nature goes its own way. ‘Room for the river’ is a perfect example of a successful Nature Based Solution, or NBS. It acknowledges the inevitability of flood events, and embraces the flood, rather than trying to repel it.”

But creating room for the river must mean taking it away from other users. How do you get them to agree?

Egon explains: “It’s not about winners at the expense of losers. When the river floods, we simply borrow land normally used for farming, nature and recreation, and give the river that space to store water until the peak has passed. The Noordwaard Polder is one of these sites. By diverting the high water onto this normally dry land, the people of Dordrecht were saved from a forced evacuation, like the one needed in 1995. Because it benefits everyone, this solution is widely accepted in the community. But that takes considerable dialogue, listening to others, weighing the individual interests, and a holistic approach to the technical realisation.”

That holistic approach is essential for a truly successful NBS: an optimal, future-proof technical solution that addresses the needs of all stakeholders. But you cannot achieve a holistic solution without the know-how and system expertise of a multitude of disciplines, such as construction engineers, climatologists, water managers, biologists, wetland specialists, forestry scientists, coastal engineers, etc., who understand the potential consequences – both positive and negative – of changes to the natural and man-made environment. The BwN programme is dedicated to building and maintaining links with and between the leading minds in the field of Nature Based Solutions.
Egon again: “For example, at Building with Nature, we participate actively in the C5a project – the ‘Cluster for Cloud to Coast to Climate Change Adaptation’. This project involves ten partners from six countries and combines the outcomes of seven ongoing Interreg North Sea Region projects. Although each project has a different primary focus, the sharing of ideas and paradigms generates awareness of opportunities for more inclusive solutions to the challenges we each face; solutions with a real synergy for the stakeholders.”

Egon Baldal is a passionate advocate of cooperation at all levels, and at every stage from problem to solution, because he believes that society needs solutions that are fair to everyone, and that means you need to acknowledge everyone’s needs and desires. “The aim we all share is to live in a resilient society that can adequately cope with climate and landscape-driven challenges – ‘from cloud to coast’”.