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Let nature solve it

From Cape Town’s water crisis to terrorism in the Sahel, nature-based solutions offer hope.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, flooding … the world has no shortage of challenges, largely human-induced. But let’s not forget man’s infinite ability for innovation. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are the new kid on the block. Instead of harming nature to address a societal problem (like food security), nature-based solutions utilise natural processes and ecosystems to solve it.

This marks a fundamental shift in how humans manage the environment. In contrast to typical engineering solutions, which need substantial infrastructure and expensive upkeep, NbS use ecosystems’ natural resilience to offer affordable, long-lasting solutions to environmental problems.

Sounds grand, doesn’t it? So, what exactly does it entail? NbS include a range of actions, among others restoration initiatives such as the reforestation of woodlands and the rehabilitation of wetlands that restore habitats for aquatic and land animals, control flooding, and trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These solutions also include greening spaces that are less biodiverse, like planting trees in a grassland or desert area. Or the greening of an area that was not green, like a city.

Reforestation vs Afforestation vs Agroforestry
All three deal with planting trees, but with key differences in their goals and locations.

Reforestation: Replanting trees in a previously forested area to restore habitat lost as a result of wildfires or tree felling.

Afforestation: Growing a new forest in an area that historically lacked trees, such as abandoned land, deserts, or grasslands. The aim is to create a new ecosystem.

Agroforestry: Farmers growing crops or raising livestock alongside trees and bushes, to create a more sustainable and productive land use system.

What’s happening in the NbS world?

 In 2018, Cape Town almost ran out of water due to a long drought. To avoid this from recurring, an environmental NGO, The Nature Conservancy, launched the Greater Cape Town Water Fund (GCTWF).

Scientist Kate Snaddon assesses the biodiversity impacts of the Greater Cape Town Water Fund’s invasive plant removal efforts in the Theewaterskloof catchment area.
Source: The Nature Conservancy

One of the programme’s aims is to remove invasive trees like acacias, pines, and eucalyptus. These water guzzlers extract much more from the environment than native plants. From November 2018 to October 2023, the GCTWF cleared over 180 km³ of these thirsty trees. That translates to 15 billion liters of water recovered yearly (enough to fill over 6 000 Olympic-size swimming pools!).

In addition, since 2019 the programme has created over 722 green jobs, with nearly half going to women. Some of these are high-risk jobs for specially trained technicians who tackle remote mountain areas.

Greening urban areas

Large sprawling cities should be seen as places of opportunity rather than problems.

Around the world, people are finding ways to use nature to help the expanding cities. One challenge is the urban heat island effect. On hot days a city can feel like a massive oven. The buildings absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night, making the city even hotter.

Urban green spaces, such as city parks and green roofs, improve air quality and help lessen the impact of the urban heat island effect. Singapore is leading the way by making nature a part of urban design. Let’s look at the city state’s successful ABC Waters Programme.

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a shining example of how the programme has transformed urban spaces. When the park was built in 1988 it was bounded by a 2,7 km long concrete canal for drainage and flood control during heavy rain.

In the early 2000s, the canal was replaced with a winding river with natural rock beds and plant-covered banks. The park is now home to lush greenery and the river attracts a wider variety of wildlife (water hens, herons, otters), boosting the park’s biodiversity. The park features special areas that filter rainwater before it enters the river, thus improving the water quality and reducing the risk of floods.

Greening a desert

 Africa boasts one of the most ambitious nature-based solutions to date. The Great Green Wall initiative (GGW) aims to cover an area of 8 000 kilometres across the Sahel to, among others, fight desertification (land turning to desert) and soil damage by planting trees and advocating using smart farming methods.

The Great Green Wall initiative stretches from Senegal to Djibouti.
Source: National Geographic

Senegal, for example, has planted over 200 km² of trees. The acacia Senegal tree is adapted for dry areas and produces gum arabic, a stabiliser used in fizzy drinks, sweets and drugs.

This project isn’t just about the environment. “The secondary effects could be even more transformational, advocates say. By lifting millions out of poverty and guaranteeing food security, the project could ease conflict and violence in the Sahel, which has become a locus in the war on terror. It could also stop tens of thousands of men – mostly young – from attempting dangerous crossings to Europe,” reports the African Business.

Insufficient funding and political instability have hampered the progress of the GGW reports earth.org. However, the initiative has grown beyond a mere tree-planting campaign to one centred around sustainable indigenous land use practices with large-scale community involvement.

All of the above illustrates, once again, that instead of working against nature, humans should look to nature to solve problems.

This article was funded by

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