Tag Archives: Water


Natural Infrastructure and Investments in Watershed Services Entering the Mainstream

As with any project, the end of a grant period offers the opportunity to assess the progress made and the way to continue moving forward in the next phase.  Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jan Cassin, Director of the Water Initiative, and discuss the changes that have gone on in the water arena over the past two years and the prospects for natural and green infrastructure approaches in the years to come.

First of all, congratulations are in order for getting approval for Phase 2 of the project.  The Phase 2 process 111011129_f63ef2f2ed_bwas quite intensive, and I know that the proposal framework in some ways changed quite a bit from the Phase 1 activities. What was some of the major feedback that this project got based on the peer review of Phase 1?

The thing that came out most strongly was that the excitement is building about the potential for mechanisms like IWS to really change the way we manage water. The idea of using natural infrastructure or green infrastructure has been around for a long time, but now the concept is starting to enter the mainstream. The idea is generating a lot of excitement now, because more people understand the importance of managing water more sustainably and the role that natural and green infrastructure can play in that.

Why do you think this change in focus is coming about?

To an extent, the public sector and the nonprofit sector have been working along these lines for quite a while, but in the last few years, the private sector and the development sector are gaining awareness of the importance of managing water at an ecosystem level, rather than a more focused approach on pipes and managing within factories or communities.  That’s one of the things that’s been really nice about working with the Swiss – they’ve been at the forefront of some of these issues.

How so?

cc04The Swiss are very focused on water and the sustainability agenda. They approach the issue holistically in the context of sustainable development – for both people and ecosystems.  In some ways, we are trying to shift the paradigm of water management and it’s been exciting, especially in the last few years, to see our partners get intrigued about the possibilities offered by investments in watershed services and continue their support of our project.

Do you think that this paradigm shift towards green and natural infrastructure is happening throughout the water sector?

I really do think that it’s starting to permeate the entire water sector. Last year at World Water Week, there were quite a few presentations on natural infrastructure, integrating gray and green infrastructure, and the role of nature-based solutions to support the water-food-energy nexus. The interest just seems to be growing, with a number of conferences incorporating these themes. The group that’s planning the 7th World Water Forum includes a number of people at the center of the NI approach to water management.

Many IWS projects struggle with finding long-term partners to pay for the ecosystem services being providers. Increasing partnerships with potential payers from the private sector is a target area for Phase 2. How are we moving forward on that front?

The collaboration that we’ve started with the CEO Water Mandate has been really exciting.  We’re actually working together with them to host a meeting in April (a few weeks before Katoomba Peru). It’s part of their own annual meeting, but we will be coming in to talk about how IWS can play a role in the corporate water stewardship initiatives that they promote.

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How will this meeting fit into Katoomba Peru?

The CEO Water Mandate is very interested in our work in Latin America, especially with the environmental laws, water funds, and investments in watershed services projects.  The organization is interested in engaging there, taking advantage of what we’re doing and then strengthening their own efforts.

Does the CEO Water Mandate or its constituent organizations have a particular interest in Peru?

A number of companies are active in the Lima watershed, including the Rimac, so they are particularly interested in the water fund that is being developed by Aquafondo, as well as the initiatives that are going on elsewhere in the basin.  These organizations have a significant interest in making sure that the disparate initiatives are aligned, that everyone is working together.  Greater alignment between initiatives obviously makes it easier for corporations, but it’s also part of the global focus areas of the Mandate, which is promoting collective action.

Collective action for managing water?

Yes. While constituent organizations are doing their individual water stewardship, looking at the water use within their supply chains and operations and figuring out how to reduce water usage, there is also an awareness that sustainable water management means engaging with other people in the watershed as well. This meeting in April is a great opportunity to explore a particular case where we can examine the impact of collective action and then how we can strengthen the management approaches within the Rimac basin.

Both the Swiss and the CEO Water Mandate have also been active in promoting and proposing water-specific ICSU paper on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) published by Naturegoals for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.  Will the SDGs be an important point of discussion at Katoomba Peru and the earlier meeting?

Definitely.  One of the themes of the Katoomba Peru is aligning policy in a number of different areas (forests, water, agriculture) in order to promote sustainable development. The Water Mandate is very interested in thinking about how the broader international establishment of these goals will trickle down and influence how water is managed on the ground.  A lot of the discussion during the April 9th meeting will be about what the proposed goals would look like on the ground in the Rimac.  There is a desire for the goals to be actionable and written in a way that moves the development community forward.


What’s New in Water? Reports from Water Conferences Around the Globe

The month of September has been a busy one for the Water Initiative, with team members traveling around the world for conferences, project meetings, and peer review meetings.  This week finally offered the chance for us to sit down and discuss key lessons and themes that will assist in scaling up investments in watershed services.

One Water Leadership Summit – Los Angeles, CA


Genevieve Bennett was the Water Initiative representative at the One Water Leadership Summit. Organized by the U.S. Water Alliance, this conference brings together leaders in sustainable water management from across the United States to talk about resource recovery and green infrastructure.

What is “one water”, you might ask? One Water is the transition from thinking about three separate siloes of water management – drinking water, waste water, and storm water – to viewing these areas as different parts of one system.  Despite this move to a more integrated approach, the discussions largely centered on gray infrastructure managed by utilities – with only the most basic discussions of ecosystem services.  Where is IWS in this new framework? Outside the box.

How is this group thinking about natural infrastructure?

  • “Green infrastructure is just for storm water.”
  • “Watershed planning is more of a storm water issue.”
  • “Drinking water protection isn’t really possible any more in most places.”

Why the focus on green infrastructure?  New storm water regulatory requirements are really driving the discussion, forcing cities to deal with an increasing problem caused by impermeable surfaces, and one that might be exacerbated by weather volatility under conservation.  In addition, one conference attendee explained that storm water is a ‘new’ problem.  As a new problem, it has fewer entrenched solutions (fewer sunk-costs) and the green infrastructure solutions are relatively low-cost (compared to managing land use in an entire watershed).

Gen live tweeted this event – check out the Watershed Connect twitter feed.

Download her brown bag presentation: OWLS 2013 Debrief

Cities of the Future – Istanbul, Turkey


Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Victor Radziun

The ancient city of Istanbul was the site of the International Water Association’s Cities of the Future conference, which Gena attended along with water engineers, water utilities, and other water professionals interested in the future of decentralized, flexible water systems.  A common theme was that water systems need to “flex and fortify” – that is, build flexibility into all aspects of the water system, while also fortifying existing water infrastructure.  This shift in viewing water systems comes along with the idea that engineers should be designing systems not to avoid failure, but to recover from it.  From this viewpoint, the value of many different options for water management increases.

Both at this conference and at the Resilience Project meeting the next week in Italy, the tradeoff between resilience and efficiency was a common theme.  Resilient systems – those which can quickly recover from failure or unexpected impacts – gain their resilience from redundancies – multiple pathways to achieve the same endpoint.  On the other hand, efficient systems are those that take the most straightforward path to the endpoint. The optimum point is somewhere between total resilience and total efficiency.

Gena’s presentation for the brown bag session.

World Water Week – Stockholm, Sweden

World Water Week, one of the largest water conferences in the world, was attended by Jan, whose presentation “Bridging Divides in Urban Water Management: Green + Gray Solutions” was part of the session on “Cooperation for Sustainable Benefits and Financing of Water Programmes”.

In the past, World Water Week has been dominated by the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, with less focus on other aspects of water management.  This viewpoint shifted this year, with the presentation of the first high-level panel on the role of nature in solving water issues.  While this was generally seen as an opportunity for water management, one panelist admitted that the business community is not ready to act on or invest natural infrastructure for water management. Until the water issues are framed in terms of risk, and solutions like IWS and NI are clearly demonstrated to reduce or alleviate risk, the business community is not going to get on board.

2013 World Water Week Exhibition Hall_16

World Water Week Exhibition Hall. Photo: Mikael Ullén

Other stumbling block for natural infrastructure solutions is the overwhelming need for better sanitation services.  Untreated sewage problems can dwarf any other water treatment problems and must be addressed. While natural infrastructure can certainly solve some of these problems – or at least provide lower cost solutions to part of the sewage problem, we often don’t include constructed wetlands or other sanitation-related solutions in our discussions within the Water Initiative.

Key Lessons and Opportunities

  • Communication is key – how do we communicate with each group that we are interested in telling about our mission? We need to work closely with actors within each of these spaces so that we can speak in their language – whether that means complicated engineering diagrams or talking about risk, marginal costs, and payback periods.
  • Storm water is a key issue for many municipalities in the U.S. – and an area where green infrastructure offers simple, relatively inexpensive solutions.  Integrating storm water management into our natural infrastructure discussion could provide opportunities for new opportunities with new actors.
  • Adoption of natural infrastructure/green infrastructure policies requires two champions: a technical champion to provide the knowhow and expertise to show that the solutions will solve the problem, and a political champion who will work to improve the legal or regulatory framework to allow natural infrastructure solutions.
  • Among water engineers, there seems to be an appetite for cost and performance data and tools to better understand the return on investment on green infrastructure.
  • For businesses, understanding their risk and vulnerability to water threats is key – and then communicating to them how IWS/NI solutions can alleviate this risk at a lower cost than traditional solutions. 
  • Cost can be less important than certainty and precision – if action is driven by regulatory requirements that require certain precise outcomes, then entities affected by the regulatory decision will be less likely to adopt “unproven”, less precise options.
  • The lack of discussion around natural infrastructure for sanitation is an opportunity –there seems to be little comparison between the costs of water treatment and the costs of constructing wetlands.