“There is a lot of attention for nature-based solutions,” says Henk Nieboer, Director of EcoShape, highlighting the current level of interest in coastal and marine schemes that take an alternative approach to traditional single-function engineering projects.

That level of interest is not yet matched by actual projects – something Nieboer hopes to help address with the workshop he is co-organising with Van Oord during AIWW.

The alternative approach

Likening the situation to that of a start-up having to survive the gap between capital injection and revenue generation, he comments: “It is still all about research and policy. I think we need to go beyond that and cross the valley of death towards actual applications.”

Nature-based solutions include options such as sustainable ports, flood defences, or forms of ecosystem restoration. So they include, for example, the ‘sand engine’ near The Hague, in the Netherlands. “This involves a massive addition of sand, which is distributed by natural processes along our coast,” explains Nieboer. Nieboer cites a project in Indonesia as another example, where mangrove forest has been recreated to tackle severe coastal erosion.

Such approaches can clearly provide a fit with the onset of sea level rise and more intense storms associated with climate change. “In an area which is subjected to severe waves because of storms, if you create salt marshes in front of your coast, they will break these waves, and you will be less vulnerable,” says Nieboer. In that case the prospect of any sea level rise would need to be kept in mind. “You have to design your salt marshes such that they keep rise with the rising sea level,” he adds.

Each project opportunity needs to be judged in its own right, and nature-based solutions will not always be the preferred option. However, Nieboer explains that in the case of the Indonesian project, for example, a hard infrastructure option would have been much more expensive. “And you will have destroyed the natural system that maintains this area, as a side effect,” he adds. So here the nature-based option was the obvious choice, he says.

Side effects

Nature-based solutions can be perceived as being less predictable and more risky. “In a way, that is true – because it is nature,” says Nieboer. While they can have a lower initial cost, they may also involve higher maintenance costs. “That is a bridge that not all asset managers are willing to cross,” he adds.

But there are positives to set against this. “One of the main advantages of nature-based solutions is that they come with side benefits that don’t necessarily relate directly to the problem you want to solve,” says Nieboer. Creating a mangrove forest to tackle erosion might also create a nursery for fish, or greater diversity of bird species.

The path to progress needs to involve looking at how projects are prepared and procured. Nature-based projects inherently involve working at a landscape scale, says Nieboer. “So there are quite a lot of stakeholders that you have to include in the design process.” There is a similar need due to the wider benefits of nature-based solutions. “You also need to mobilise the people that will be profiting from those benefits,” he says, adding: “If you are going out to tender, there should be a reward mechanism for those additional benefits. Very often it is not there.”

EcoShape at AIWW 2019

Nieboer sees that his AIWW workshop, Nature-based solutions for building resilience in communities (Tuesday, 5 November, 13:30 to 14:45) provides an opportunity to help progress nature-based solutions. “AIWW is a great platform to discuss new ways of working, such as nature-based solutions,” he says. “I would like to share our vision, but I would also like to discuss with the people attending the workshop what their feelings are, what their insights are, what their suggestions are, so that as a community we can hopefully bring this concept of nature-based solutions and the realisation of many successful projects one step closer.”

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