Skip to content

Optimising nature-based solutions in pressurised river catchments

November 23, 2021
Rivers and their surroundings are vital for humans and biodiversity. Image: NIVA

Rivers are important conduits of water through many landscapes, and have long been key to human settlements and development. They often host remarkable biodiversity and provide various benefits for human livelihood and wellbeing, including water for irrigation, domestic use, and energy generation. Rivers often provide room for transportation and recreation, whilst their floodplains can support water purification, carbon storage, and flood protection.

Environmental change, land fragmentation, and land use change are primary causes for the global loss of biodiversity, habitats and ecosystem services. We are already experiencing increased levels of conflict over land use and freshwater resources, both in Norway and globally. These conflicts often relate trade-offs between safeguarding biodiversity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable energy production, agricultural production, intensified forestry and increasing urbanisation.

Climate change is rapidly altering river flows, and flooding poses an increased risk for human safety and infrastructure in floodplains. There is clearly an urgent and increasing need for holistic and science-based management approaches that can reduce potential conflicts among stakeholders, as well as provide information and tools to facilitate rapid and scale-relevant decision making solutions.

Flooding in one of the SABICAS case study catchments in 2018. Image: Visu Media tatt for Haldenvassdraget vannområde

SABICAS: Developing tools to safeguard biodiversity and improve climate adaptation in river catchments under pressure

What can we do to manage such complex and pressurised river catchments? One response comes from the SABICAS project, funded by The Research Council of Norway under a new call focusing on collaborations between research and non-research partners. It involves eleven partners including research institutes, universities, non-research partners and stakeholders.

“In the SABICAS project, we will focus on two Norwegian river catchments under pressure from a range of land-uses,” says SABICAS manager Dr. Benjamin Kupilas from NIVA, Norway. “We will also explore how to optimally convert parts of the current land use into resilient, eco-functioning nature-based solutions using riparian zones, wetlands, and floodplains.”

Conserving and restoring ecosystem processes across riparian zones, wetlands and floodplains offers multiple opportunities for tackling the current biodiversity and climate crisis. In so doing, it signposts a sustainable future for people and nature, without a major loss of economic value. Conserving and restoring these ecosystem types fits within the concept of nature-based solutions, defined by the IUCN as, “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”

Riparian zones, wetlands and floodplains throughout river catchments provide habitats for wildlife, improve carbon storage and natural flood protection, regulate water temperatures, increase water purification and recreational value. Image: SABICAS

SABICAS aims to provide tools and knowledge needed to quantify the benefits and co-benefits of such nature-based solutions. The goal is to facilitate dialogue and decision making among stakeholders and managers. SABICAS will engage with all key catchment stakeholders – from recreational fishermen to farmers, from local grassroots to policy makers – through several activities, including workshops and living labs.

“We will use stakeholder input to influence how we investigate effects of nature-based solutions. We will continue the dialogue on how to prioritise the different solutions at appropriate scales throughout the project,” says SABICAS coordinator Prof. Nikolai Friberg from NIVA. “The close dialogue with all interest groups will enable a faster transition towards green and sustainable solutions in river catchments where there are multiple conflicting interests.”

SABICAS will find out which types and designs of nature-based solutions are most effective. The project will develop model-based tools to optimise nature-based solutions at the catchment scale, that can be used for the management of rivers in the future.

Riparian strips along rivers can provide corridors for wildlife and buffer pollutants and flooding. Image: SABICAS

Knowledge-based tools to tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration starts this year and signifies a new era. The ambitions of the EU Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 demand significant actions, and restoration will be a key component in reaching their targets. We are likely to see an unprecedented upscaling of restoration actions in the coming years, creating an enormous demand for skills that can drive this process, from planners to practitioners, all underpinned by science.

Nature-based solutions are thus likely to be implemented at increasing rates to help alleviate the pressure on both nature and humans. The escalation of climate change, the threat to biodiversity, and increased risk from pollutants must be met with appropriate measures to secure human wellbeing across entire river catchments. Projects such as SABICAS and MERLIN will be vital in providing knowledge-based tools and to ensure that appropriate measures are implemented as efficiently as possible.


SABICAS – SAfeguard BIodiversity and improve Climate Adaptation in catchment areas under pressure: tools and Solutions (The Research Council of Norway project no. 320176)

This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Comments are closed.