What are Nature Based Solutions?
Nature-based solutions (NBS) is an approach that uses natural infrastructures (e.g., trees, shrubs, ponds) to provide critical services – ecosystem services – for human activities. These ecosystem services can complement existing economic activities or can be used to tackle challenges and problems affecting a region. For example, the presence of natural predators can be promoted at agricultural fields to improve pest suppression, or natural habitats surrounding farms can be improved to increase pollinator diversity and abundance, hence increasing yield and productivity. Likewise, NBS may be employed for water management, from enhancing water availability (e.g., soil moisture retention, groundwater recharge), improving water quality (e.g., natural and artificial wetlands, riparian strips), and reducing risks associated with water-related disasters and climate change (e.g., floodplain or forests’ restoration). These NBS approaches are at the forefront on the fight against climate change by potentially increasing the resilience of an area to drought and water loss.
NBS, water and agriculture
One of the main points of promoting resilience to climate change is the implementation of nature-based solutions at the local level. This is most effective through an integrated approach aiming to protect or restore environmental services in a water catchment area. Moreover, water management challenges can often be addressed more cost-effectively and sustainably by developing nature-based solutions alone or alongside conventional infrastructure. In fact, it has been estimated that crop production could be increased by almost 20% as a consequence of soil and water management practices in rain-fed agriculture alone (e.g., improved water capture through modifying tillage regimes or mulching). Additionally, NBS can also be employed to tackle spatially diffuse pollution from agriculture, especially nutrients, that are a serious problem worldwide.
Future directions for NBS and agriculture
NBS, like everything, have limits. They are not a magic solution, and must be evaluated and implemented based on local specific conditions considering both the environment and socio-economic factors. Currently, a wide array of NBS have been developed and tested to harness current water management challenges. In fact, a number of NBS have already been proposed by major international agencies (e.g., UNEP, FAO) as an effective tool to improve water availability and increase resilience to climate change. Yet, the evaluation of the impact and monitoring of NBS on water management has seldom been done. It is paramount that current research should focus on understanding how the different NBS can impact on water preservation and availability. In other words, for these NBS to be more widely and efficiently applied, a stakeholder needs to know the amount of water (capture or retention) that each NBS can provide. Only with detailed and focused knowledge may these NBS foster a more sustainable agriculture for the challenges of the XXIth century.