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Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

July 6, 2022

Sanya Mangrove Park: a ‘Sponge City’ in China where water is naturally stored and filtered within the urban landscape. Image: Turenscape

Water is central to so many contemporary environmental issues. Climate change, biodiversity loss, flooding, the list goes on: water percolates through the key global challenges we face in shaping sustainable futures on Earth.

But after decades of corralling water away from floodplains and wetlands into channels, dams and sewers, a new generation of ‘water detectives’ suggest that humanity’s desire to control water should be rethought. These water detectives – a loose global network of restoration ecologists, hydrogeologists, biologists, anthropologists, urban planners and engineers – are the focus of Erica Gies’ new book Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.

Gies highlights that many of the water detectives she studies are asking the same fundamental question at their sites: what does water want? That is, what natural patterns, rhythms and dynamics did water cycles have in particular locations, before their landscapes were radically altered by human development? And could giving up attempts to control water actually help mitigate contemporary environmental issues such as intensifying floods and droughts?

Through following projects at sites across the world, Gies suggests that vital new approaches to water management which focus on repairing – or mimicking – natural hydrological systems are emerging globally. Such projects include dam removal, floodplain reconnection and river re-meandering. And, as projects – such as MERLIN – focused on such nature-based solutions for restoration are finding, repairing natural water systems can have significant wider ripple effects which address issues such as biodiversity loss and climate crisis.

Gies argues that the infrastructure of many global water systems has removed the ‘slow’ phases of the water cycle. These phases often occur on wetlands, floodplains and peatlands, where water slowly flows, percolates and settles in the landscape. Gies highlights that such slow phases of water are often “where the magic happens” in supporting flourishing ecosystems, naturally filtering water, and buffering flood surges. However, many such environments have been lost to human development over the last century, and are now in pressing need of restoration.

As a result, Gies advocates for a Slow Water approach to contemporary water management. Resonating with the long-established Slow Food movement, she outlines an approach which works with local landscapes, climates and cultures to restore the natural ‘slow’ phases of water to support water supply, flood control, carbon storage and biodiversity habitat.

Support for such approaches requires a shift in how we perceive our water landscapes, Gies suggests. “A big part of shifting to water management that collaborates with nature is giving up the illusion of control,” Gies writes. “Green infrastructure is not static or predictable like concrete: nature is messy. Water rises and falls. Plants sprout, live, and die. Mud is exposed. Although these spaces can be beautiful – perhaps more beautiful than, say, a dam – people might not always like what they see. We will need to learn to accept a dynamic environment.”

Accordingly, Gies aligns the Slow Water approach with Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, which frames humans as part of wider communities of non-human life which carry moral and ethical responsibilities for conservation and care. Such an outlook is currently being extended in the modern ‘rights of rivers’ movement, in which naturally-functioning freshwater systems are given right within legal systems.

Through Water Always Wins, Gies follows a series of ‘water detectives’ as they apply Slow Water approaches across the world. In Seattle, USA, an urban stream named Thornton Creek is broken out of concrete channels into new floodplains, bringing back a whole food web of aquatic life, reducing flooding and restoring salmon spawning grounds. In Devon, UK a trial reintroduction of beavers is found to naturally filter river water, boost biodiversity and buffer flood surges as a result of the animals’ ‘ecosystem engineering’.

In Chennai, India, large areas of periodically-flooded marsh and wetland are restored in collaboration with local communities as a means of reducing droughts and floods and creating biodiversity habitat. And in China, a series of ‘Sponge Cities’ incorporate restored greenspaces and wetlands to help store and slow the flow of heavy rainfall to mitigate flooding and filter pollutants.

These diverse projects provide inspiration for anyone seeking to better understand – and manage – our contemporary relationships with water. Broadly, they all involve a ceding of our human control of water, and an embrace of uncertainty and complexity towards working with nature to achieve conservation and restoration goals. As Gies concludes, through such Slow Water approaches, “In letting go, in providing space, we acknowledge the power of waterlands – to hold water, to hold carbon, to hold life, including us. In giving, we receive.”


Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

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