10 November 2021

The Nature Effect

Author/Compiled by
Martin Wafler
Janek Hermann-Friede

WHAT IF...you created solutions by letting nature work for you?

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The Nature Effect strategy draws from and identifies natural processes, adapts and applies them as culturally, economically, financially, environmentally and socially appropriate alternatives to hard-engineered and technology-centred approaches. Therefore, this strategy requires a thorough understanding of natural processes and competencies / experience in ecological engineering. It supports nature-based solutions having multiple benefits and supporting sustainable development and resilience.

Turning challenges into opportunities

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Today, challenges in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Health) and resource management are often approached with sophisticated high-tech solutions. However, such solutions are often inappropriate in local contexts, as they do not meet customers’ capacities, resources and needs. In such contexts, technological solutions may seem attractive first, but are often unsustainable and do not yield the envisaged benefits in the long-term. 

Conventional, technology-oriented solutions are often: 

  • capital- and energy-intensive, 

  • too complex and inflexible to be adapted by customers and beneficiaries, 

  • less culturally, financially and ecologically appropriate, 

  • depending on highly skilled staff for Operation and Maintenance (O&M), and 

  • less feasible for remote / decentralised settings. 

This becomes apparent with the examples of water purification and wastewater treatment: technology intensive membrane filtration and activated sludge treatment processes require less space compared to low-tech treatment solutions like slow sand filtration and Horizontal Flow Constructed Wetland. In urban areas land is expensive and as a result technology has gained the upper hand in many cities. In rural areas, however high-tech solutions may not be the best choice, because they are energy-intensive and require higher levels of maintenance and skilled staff. 

Moving towards a strategy

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The Nature Effect strategy draws from and identifies natural processes (e.g. natural attenuation processes, etc.), adapts and applies them as an alternative to technology-centred approaches. This strategy aims at managing (socio-)ecological systems in a more comprehensive way to sustain and potentially increase delivery of ecosystem services. It supports optimising your local water management and sanitation system and closing water and nutrient cycles along the lines of nature. 

Nature-based solutions (NBS) is a novel concept, defined as actions inspired by, supported by, or copied from nature (COHEN-SHACHAM et al. 2016) that (SOMARAKIS et al. 2019): 

  • deploy various natural features and processes in a resource efficient and sustainable manner; 

  • are adapted to local systems into diverse spatial scales, redefining the role of nature in urban, rural, and natural environments; and 

  • face social, environmental, and economic challenges, leading to multiple benefits and supporting sustainable development and resilience. 

Furthermore, smart engineering solutions and NBS are often more cost-effective than traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure alternatives (SOMARAKIS et al. 2019) as they: 

  • reduce investment costs in infrastructure (at the costs of being more space intensive), and 

  • minimise O&M costs. 

In many cases, NBS can be implemented with local resources (often based-upon traditional solutions) and are therefore more likely to be accepted. It is also easier to deconstruct or adjust them as they usually make less extensive incursions into nature. NBS often have many positive ‘side effects’, as advantages stretch beyond the specific problem that triggered the solution. 

Constructed wetlands are a good example for the added value of such multi-functionality: constructed wetlands utilise the natural functions of wetland vegetation, soil and their microbial populations to treat contaminants in surface water, groundwater, or waste streams (SOMARAKIS et al 2019). Beyond the core functionality of treating water, constructed wetlands are an aesthetically pleasing solution that beautifies landscapes and promotes biodiversity by offering a habitat for a multitude of animals and plants. Low maintenance requirements and costs make their value proposition more sustainable. 

Another example: soft, green areas such as shelter belts, street parks, plant screens and green walls and roofs reduce both actual noise and the perception of noise (BLOCK and BOKALDERS 2016) and are therefore viable, NBS and alternatives to conventional technical noise barriers for sound reduction. At the same time they contribute to improving local climate and air quality by absorb heat and cooling surrounding areas during day and night. However, in some cases it may be more difficult to convince customers to pay for something natural. 

To make ‘The Nature Effect’ work for you, the following step-wise approach may help you: 

  1. Step: Understand which functions are necessary to solve a problem (e.g. cleaning water, accumulating nutrients in the soil, etc.) 

  1. Step: Identify nature-based solutions (What does nature have solutions for?) 

  1. Step: Check if nature-based solutions/the nature-inspired process can be used to solve the problem (ecological engineering) and whether it has advantages. Whether the solution is easier to be implemented and more appropriate and sustainable compared to high-tech solutions. 

The table below may provide some initial inspiration by comparing examples of conventional, technical solutions to nature-based solutions for selected challenges addressed: 

Problem addressed 

Examples of technological solutions 

Examples of nature-based solutions 

Water purification 

Wastewater treatment 

Runoff regulation 

  • Natural systems with green roofs, ditches, ponds, wetlands, temporary flooding areas at low points (BLOCK and BOKALDERS 2016) 

Pest control 

  • Pesticides 

  • Push-pull biological control 

Sound reduction 

  • Hard-engineered, technical noise barriers 

  • Shelter belts, street parks, plant screens and green walls and roofs reduce both actual noise and the per- ception of noise (BLOCK and BOKALDERS 2016) 

Erosion control & maintenance of soil fertility 

  • Retaining walls, gabion baskets, geotextiles 

Nutrition & food security 

  • Conventional agriculture 

  • Walls with edible plants 

  • Floating agriculture that allows farmers to maintain or increase agricultural productivity in the face of increased monsoon season flooding (UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD 2020) 

Case Study 1

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Vetiver TT Ecological Engineering Solutions Ltd. aims to bring civil engineering expertise into sustainable solutions design, making use of the Vetiver System (VS) as a green, less invasive and more cost-effective approach to tackle many soil and water related challenges commonly faced in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean: slope stabilisation and protection, erosion control, surface water management, soil and water conservation, rehabilitation of degraded lands, etc. 

Vetiver grass as a bio-engineering tool can be implemented alone, or in combination with other traditional hard-engineered solutions (such as retaining walls, gabion baskets, geotextiles, etc.) to e.g. assist the stabilisation and protection of sloping land, road embankments, etc. The deep and fibrous vetiver root system extends deep into the soil, reinforcing the soil structure, thereby stabilising the surrounding slopes. 

The VS offers an aesthetically pleasing, highly efficient nature-based solution that contributes to reducing investment costs as compared to more technological, infrastructure intensive and expensive solutions. Challenges are sometimes encountered with customers' willingness to pay for something natural, but as they recognise the systematic approach and engineering considerations required, and appreciate cost-savings opportunities, buy-in becomes possible. Development and application of the system requires a thorough understanding of natural processes, the properties of vetiver grass (e.g. nutrient up-take capacity, tensile strength of root system, etc.) and competencies / experience in ecological engineering. 

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Source: Vetiver TT

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