Life support systems

6th September 2013

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Society must embrace natural infrastructure rather than rely solely on technical solutions, argues Mark Everard

The word infrastructure typically conjures up images of dams and motorways, power stations and pylons, railways and airports. This technological infrastructure provides much of what we need in our day-to-day lives: we turn a tap expecting safe water, throw a switch expecting reliable power and visit a shop expecting the fruits of the world’s soils and seas.

But where do the water, power and food come from? What of the materials and energy entailed in their production, purification and transport? And what breaks down our waste? Beneath our technological infrastructure lies a deeper infrastructure of natural processes. The word infrastructure has Latin roots: infra meaning “beneath” and struo meaning “to build”. We’re talking supportive foundations.

Ultimately, natural processes form and renew the soils that grow food, recycle water and regenerate the fish and forest stocks that humans plunder beyond sustainable limits. Waterwheels and windmills enabled people to harvest energy from solar-driven flows of water and air, evolving today into electricity-generating turbines. And much of humanity’s demand for transport, heat and power is served by mining fossilised reserves of sequestered solar energy.

Indeed, natural infrastructure provides, tidies and pays all our bills, and our ingenious built infrastructure merely routes it to our doors. However, technocentric conceptions about infrastructure are inherently dangerous if they blinker us from the ecosystems processes underwriting our continued wellbeing.

Nature’s foundations

Pre-industrial societies lived intimately with nature’s infrastructure, as do billions of people today in the developing world. Droughts mean immediate shortages of water, food and grazing. But we are all – privileged and subsistence-level alike – vulnerable to the degradation of natural systems, insulated by degree through technical innovations such as water storage, redistribution schemes and global trade.

The water cycle is a fundamental component of nature’s infrastructure, recirculating, purifying and smoothing flows, and supporting all dimensions of human wellbeing. Habitat-scale natural infrastructure, including wetlands and floodplains, often play critical roles in influencing the quality, quantity, ecology and character of watercourses and water bodies, moderating profoundly their capacities to sustain human interests.

The atmosphere constitutes another macroscopic infrastructure system, deflecting radiation and circulating moisture, energy and gases, as well as distributing seeds, pollen and flying organisms. Landscapes and soil structure too constitute vital infrastructure, growing most of our food, supporting wildlife, trapping carbon, breaking down pollutants and moderating the water cycle across a mosaic of connected habitats.

Largely, people remain oblivious to the services provided by these vital and interconnected systems. But if we use or abuse them beyond natural limits, degradation of system resilience and its multiple services is assured.

Wake up call

Nature’s infrastructure is of overriding importance to human wellbeing. The evolution of civilisations has been profoundly defined by, for example, the harnessing of water flows for irrigation and food production, transport, defence and power.

Focusing narrowly on technological means to harness and divert nature’s wealth, but overlooking natural infrastructure itself, is dangerously shortsighted. Yet, much of our built infrastructure is founded on exploiting one service, while overlooking “collateral damage” to nature’s life-support infrastructure and its many wider services to humanity.

Water supply, for example, commonly entails heavy engineering solutions such as dams and transfer systems of benefit to municipalities, with industries and irrigated landscapes receiving piped water and hydroelectric supplies.

However, nature’s water infrastructure delivers an array of other services, including soil regeneration; habitats for fisheries; natural irrigation of croplands and grazing; regulation of local and global climate and hydrology; nutrient cycling; and sustenance for wildlife. These in turn support diverse livelihoods, though much of this value goes unrecognised.

Intercepting water for narrow purposes, while overlooking wider impacts on the natural infrastructure system, can generate multiple, underappreciated costs. This has implications for distribution, with advantaged and influential sectors generally benefiting disproportionately, while the inevitable costs are shared among those closest to the subsistence level. The net value to society, and hence sustainability, is questionable, though long-term detriment is assured.

This narrow mining of crucial ecosystems services at net cost to the integrity of wider natural infrastructure is all around us in the increased generation of climate-active gases and solid waste from wastewater treatment technologies; the disrupted hydrology and diffuse pollution caused by intensive land use; and the loss of habitat and fish stocks resulting from the construction of coastal defences.

The consequences of ignoring natural processes underlie current sustainability challenges, including species loss and fishery collapse; deforestation and receding aquifers; air pollution; climate instability; soil erosion; and eutrophication.

Rediscovering nature

Working with natural processes was generally the norm in pre-industrial times, and remains so for billions of people living non-industrialised lives. But this concept has, over recent decades, increasingly entered the vocabulary of flood risk and coastal defence; diffuse pollution; and fisheries and habitat management. This is loosening some established assumptions and generating some novel environment management solutions.

Among them is the rediscovery and application of local technologies for water capture to meet a diversity of livelihood needs. Traditional water harvesting techniques include:

  • tank, anicut and johad systems in Rajasthan, India for groundwater recharge;
  • ziä systems in Burkina Faso to divert seasonal rains and organic matter into the soil;
  • field-scale rainwater harvesting using bunds and troughs in South Africa;
  • terraced agriculture throughout Asia; and
  • fog-trapping nets in South America, whereby large pieces of material are used to make fog condense into droplets to be captured in a trough.

Fog harvesting could conceivably support reforestation in some areas; the restored natural infrastructure of trees would then perform the water-harvesting functions that are of significant benefit to people.

One example of rainwater harvesting techniques being used by industry is an SABMiller brewery in Neemrana, Rajasthan, that was formerly implicated in over-abstraction of groundwater. The site is now using the johad system – building earth dams on natural slopes to collect and store rainwater – to offset water use in manufacturing. Since the construction of the four water recharge dams, it is estimated that there has been a net rise of 9.44m in groundwater in the area.

Using old and new water harvesting techniques, at local and industrial scales, can achieve more sustainable outcomes if founded on the same principle of working with nature’s infrastructure.

The value of natural infrastructure is also being rediscovered in urban areas. So-called “green infrastructure” spans a broad range of techniques that protect, rehabilitate or emulate natural processes in the built environment, contributing to the breakdown of urban heat islands; managing runoff; and creating places for nature.

Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) emulate natural processes to slow rainwater flows and encourage ground infiltration, contributing to urban flood management, pollutant control and green spaces.

Green roofs, rain gardens, green walls, rainwater harvesting and water-neutral buildings, water sensitive urban design, urban river restoration, community forests and a range of other built environment innovations seek to address a range of issues. These include improving urban climate, air quality, noise and water flows, while promoting pollination, green transport routes, habitat and wildlife corridors. And urban technologies are converging and losing their distinctions as the potential of each to contribute to a wide basket of ecosystems services is realised.

Taking an ecosystems approach to spatial and transport planning yields multiple, formerly neglected benefits, including enhanced urban vitality, ecology and liveability, as well as economic returns, such as increasing the value of property.

New York City’s green infrastructure plan, for example, found that integrating such systems with more traditional urban infrastructure generated financial benefits of approximately $1.5 billion annually. Similarly, an EU project on valuing attractive landscapes in the urban economy found substantial benefits arising from green infrastructure in European cities.

Systemic solutions

Green shoots of innovation in supporting and developing natural infrastructure are evident across the world. However, they are still far from mainstream in public policy and business governance.

Typically, the focus of any decision-making process – whether it is on investment banking or environment management – is on just one issue, rather than how issues link together. This silo mentality results in narrowly framed solutions, and we are blind to their ramifications for other dependent elements of nature’s infrastructure.

Alternative sustainable solutions are required if we are to accumulate rather than erode the net value to society in an increasingly resource-constrained, more populated future. Systemic solutions are defined as low-input technologies that, rather than maximising single benefits, optimise the delivery of a wide range of ecosystem services.

Integrated constructed wetland (ICW) systems built in Ireland are a prime example of such an approach. ICWs treat waterborne wastes (such as dairy effluent, sewage and farmland runoff), sequester carbon, cycle nutrients and provide habitat for wildlife and amenity areas, as well as regenerating wetland landscapes.

Taking a catchment approach to managing pollutants entering rivers also represents a cheaper and more sustainable option than continued reliance on energy- and chemical-intensive techniques to remove pollutants downstream.

Under the “upstream thinking” programme in South West England, the Westcountry Rivers Trust works as an intermediary circulating funds from water companies to farmers to reduce polluting inputs. The aim of the project is to improve raw water quality and manage the quantity of water at source, long before it reaches water treatment works, through improved land management. The benefit-to-cost ratio of the initiative, compared with conventional water treatment, is estimated to be as much as 65:1.

The transition to more connected ways of thinking requires going beyond historic silos. Rather, air quality, flood management, water quality, public amenity, wildlife and noise abatement come as a connected package from the processes performed by carefully designed or reinstated natural infrastructure. Conversely, net costs across the system accrue if the focus remains on narrowly framed technology-based solutions.

In an increasingly populated world with dwindling natural resources, humans can choose to learn from their mistakes or repeat them. Systemic solutions could provide a more sustainable way of delivering services without the unintended consequences associated with heavily engineered infrastructure. Ecosystems-based solutions have a significant role to play in delivering more benefits with fewer inputs.

The needs of humanity cannot be solely served by either technocentric or ecocentric solutions, however. Policymakers need to meld both to provide sufficient food, water and other critical resources for dense population centres on a planet where more than half the population clusters in cities. And, while a clever mix of solutions is essential to access critical natural resources, it cannot create the resources themselves.

Recognising the value of natural infrastructure is central to sustainable progress, though bringing nature’s infrastructure into the mainstream of policy and practice remains a daunting challenge.

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