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Nature-based solutions and economic sectors in freshwater restoration: four themes to strengthen collaboration

April 5, 2023
Peatland restoration in Scotland: how might such nature-based solutions help support economic sectors? Image: MERLIN

Protecting natural environments has long relied on co-operation between the different people and organisations who live and work in them. As such, it is widely recognised that biodiversity conservation and restoration are inherently social activities. Accordingly, they require careful consideration of the cultural, political and economic contexts of the landscapes in which they take place.

The nature-based solutions concept offers emerging opportunities to navigate these contexts to help strengthen freshwater restoration efforts. Nature-based solutions aim to use natural processes to help tackle socio-environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and flooding.

At the core of the nature-based solutions concept is a belief that ecological restoration can bring significant benefits to both society and biodiversity. The EU-funded MERLIN project explores how these benefits can act as a focus for collaborations between different economic sectors to help mainstream freshwater restoration.

MERLIN works with representatives from six economic sectors – agriculture, hydropower, insurance, navigation, peat extraction, and water supply and sanitation to mainstream nature-based solutions in their activities across Europe. Project partners recently released a briefing exploring how nature-based solutions are understood across these sectors in Europe, and – vitally – how they might help encourage collaborations which strengthen restoration efforts.

The team learnt four valuable lessons from talking to sectoral representatives which have wider implications for ecological restoration initiatives elsewhere.

Demonstrating the value of nature-based solutions

First, whilst sectoral representatives were largely aware of nature-based solutions in freshwater restoration, they were not always persuaded of the need for radical change or transformation. Crucially, representatives were not yet convinced that they could rely on nature-based solutions to deliver their sectoral objectives.

A key challenge is to illustrate how nature-based solutions can help sectors advance EU Green Deal goals. Adopted in 2019, the Green Deal has wide-ranging ambitions to support environmental protection, green economies, sustainable agriculture and technological innovation across Europe. The MERLIN briefing suggests that sectoral representatives were broadly supportive of its vision, and the task is to demonstrate how nature-based solutions can help achieve it.

Communicating and providing evidence

Second, whilst the language of nature-based solutions is not yet widely used across these sectors, there is an understanding of concepts of sustainability and ‘working with nature’. The MERLIN researchers suggest that this provides a strong basis to foreground the potential social and economic benefits offered by nature-based solutions in restoration.

Third, sectoral representatives seek clear evidence that nature-based solutions can bring tangible benefits to their own initiatives. In particular, this involves demonstrating how nature-based solutions can work effectively across entire catchments. Moreover, there is a need for clarity over how the ‘burden-sharing’ of restoring nature will be coordinated and governed.

The Tzipori basin in Israel: water in such pressurised ecosystems is often vital to multiple economic sectors. Image: MERLIN

Managing synergies and trade-offs

Finally, the MERLIN researchers identify strong synergies between the different sectors. However, these are balanced by potential trade-offs and challenges, for example over the location and scale of benefits generated. Through initiatives such as the MERLIN Academy, the project seeks to build new communities of practice around nature-based solutions to help communicate their potential for economic sectors, and manage these trade-offs and tensions.

Co-author and co-lead of research Kirsty Blackstock from the James Hutton Institute said, “It has been extremely instructive to talk to, and learn from, representatives from these economic sectors. Through this discussion, we’ve identified cooperation points where we can start our journey of transformation together. We don’t always agree – there are often difficult trade-offs to resolve – but through knowledge sharing, solutions can be found.”

Co-author and co-lead of research Anna Bérczi-Siket from WWF added, “Putting a focus on freshwater restoration and nature-based solutions in the six economic sectors’ actions requires a paradigm shift.

“Our first briefing introduces the starting point of our formulating community of practice which includes the six MERLIN sectors. Side by side with this community we will draw up a cross-sectoral route map to the change we want to achieve together.

“Our cooperation is a good example of how the integration principle of the environmental policy can be put into practice – which also requires that environmental and sustainability considerations become an integral part of the decision-making processes and actions of other sectors,” Bérczi-Siket said.

Overall, the briefing suggests that there is significant potential for nature-based solutions to help address social and biodiversity goals through strengthened collaborations across economic sectors. The challenge over the coming years is to provide clear evidence and recommendations to help sectors mainstream nature-based solutions in their everyday practices.


Read the MERLIN briefing: Mainstreaming aquatic restoration using Nature-based Solutions: Briefing on national / EU sector perceptions, workshops, and tailored briefings per sector

Read briefings on how nature-based solutions are being integrated into individual economic sectors through MERLIN.

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