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Arroyo Seco Foundation

News of the Arroyo


Green Infrastructure Key to Solving 21st Century Water Crises






Robert Brears


The Water Network


Cities and ​communities all ​over the world ​are facing ​severe water ​crises. ​

Sub-Saharan ​Africa is ​experiencing ​its worst ​drought in ​decades; and ​while ​California is ​finally seeing ​its parched ​reservoirs ​being refilled, ​the intensity ​and fierceness ​of the storms ​bringing this ​relief also ​harbor new ​dangers, ​triggering ​mudslides, ​flooding, ​blizzards, and ​avalanches - ​thereby putting ​lives at risk. ​Intense and ​erratic weather ​patterns such ​as these ​endanger much ​of our natural ​infrastructure, ​and, among ​other things, ​make access to ​clean water ​uncertain and ​costly. ​

Unfortunately,​ most cities ​and nations are ​trying to fix ​21st Century ​problems with ​20th Century ​technology. ​They turn to ​“gray ​solutions”​ - massive ​public works ​made of steel ​and concrete, ​such as dams, ​treatment ​plants, and ​storm drain ​networks - with ​results that ​can be ​inadequate at ​best, harmful ​at worst. ​Traditional ​gray solutions ​have themselves ​contributed to ​environmental ​degradation and ​are often ​vulnerable to ​environmental ​impacts like ​climate change. ​This gray ​infrastructure ​also comes with ​a high price ​tag: some $10 ​trillion will ​be required to ​repair and ​expand the ​world’s ​existing water ​infrastructure ​by 2030. With ​only $500 ​billion being ​spent annually ​on traditional ​infrastructure, ​we are far from ​meeting that. ​

To deal with ​soaring costs ​and deteriorating ​infrastructure, ​leaders ​gathered ​in Davos, ​Switzerland ​for the ​47th ​World Economic Forum this ​week are ​driving the ​agenda to ​restore not ​just roads and ​bridges, but ​also our ​forests and ​rivers. ​

Natural ​infrastructure ​in Bucharest, ​Romania (Credit ​dpvue studio/​Shutterstock)

Delivering ​water and ​sanitation for ​all in the 21st ​century will ​require a new ​approach - one ​that does not ​solely rely on ​gray solutions, ​but gray in ​combination ​with “​green” ​systems such as ​forests, ​grasslands, and ​wetlands, which ​protect our ​access to clean ​water and are ​more resilient ​to environmental ​change. Such ​“green ​infrastructure”​ can both ​reduce costs ​and manage the ​risks to water ​systems very ​effectively. ​Measures such ​as protecting ​watersheds to ​provide water ​regulation and ​filtering ​services can ​avoid the need ​for new capital ​expenses and ​reduce ​operational ​costs. In Lima, ​Peru, we have ​seen that a ​green-gray ​combination of ​water ​management ​options could ​save 18% on ​costs compared ​to a strategy ​that relied on ​gray infrastructure ​alone. ​

In addition, ​investing in ​watershed ​health can ​significantly ​reduce the ​level of risk ​to water ​systems. ​Healthy ​watersheds ​control erosion ​and reduce ​operational ​risks to water ​treatment ​plants from ​excessive ​sedimentation, ​but also ​mitigate ​flooding risks ​to downstream ​property. ​Cities as ​different as ​Santa Fe, New ​Mexico; Quito, ​Ecuador; and ​Melbourne, ​Australia are ​making ​investments in ​improved forest ​management ​practices to ​reduce wildfire ​risks and ​resulting ​erosion that ​can threaten ​downstream ​water supplies. ​

Peru has been ​a leader in ​moving towards ​a new “​green+​gray” ​approach to ​water, with an ​innovative new ​program ​allocating a ​portion of ​water ​tariffs to new ​green ​infrastructure. ​In the coming ​months, Forest ​Trends will be ​working with ​Peruvian and ​international ​experts to ​support the ​design of the ​first-ever 30-​year Master ​Plan that will ​integrate green ​infrastructure ​into Lima’​s long-term ​planning for ​water security. ​Improving ​pasture ​management in ​the high Andean ​grasslands and ​restoring ​traditional ​water ​management ​technologies ​that work with ​nature - ​ancient pre-​Incan ​infiltration ​canals - will ​play their part ​in a more ​sustainable, ​cost-effective ​water solutions ​for Lima. And, ​as more ​communities ​begin ​harnessing ​nature and ​green solutions ​to cope with ​the daunting ​water crisis ​facing the ​planet, ​assuring access ​to safe water, ​saving money, ​and protecting ​vibrant ​economies will ​become a real ​possibility. ​




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