Recently at the invitation of the UN and PEDRR (Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction**), I was fortunate to participate in and facilitate at a small but powerful international gathering on integrating engineering and ecosystems approaches into Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change. I flew to Bonn Germany, birthplace of Beethoven, for an intensive three-days of work at the UN Campus.
Emerging challenges associated with population growth, urbanization (by 2050 over half the world’s population will live in coastal cities), economic development, sea level rise and changing climate patterns will require fresh approaches and answers. New solutions will need to be innovative and align engineering infrastructure with environmental protection and economic growth. Nature is a critical player but not the only one in this kind of thinking.
The concept of nature-based solutions or building with nature is becoming more mainstream as society struggles to find answers and while an expanding population puts more demands on scarce and stressed resources. But not everyone is convinced that nature is as secure as concrete.
The Bonn gathering brought together thinkers and practitioners from around the world representing most of the planet’s ecosystems and interests. Experiences spanned national, urban, and rural scales. There were experts in economics, finance, engineering, ecology, social sciences, and from academic, government, NGO, institutional and the private sectors. All had an important voice.
Integrating ecosystem services with engineering is necessary but complex. Some nations have already embraced the concept and invested heavily to explore solutions. In the Netherlands, government, private and academic sectors joined together with an investment of $30million over five years to collaborate on this challenge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, known for its huge infrastructure projects, has been exploring guidelines and approaches to include nature in their designs. NGO communities like The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Wetlands International and others have actively been supporting nature-based solutions. Japan has been learning from post Tohoku efforts. Academics and university programs like UN-University, the Global Forum for Urban and Regional Resilience (Virginia Tech), programs in Singapore, Spain, Germany and beyond have sought to facilitate dialogues and cross-disciplinary interactions as well as engaging in research projects. Professional engineering societies, e.g. American Society of Civil Engineers, are seeking ways to adapt their practices to include green solutions and address climate change. The UN and PEDRR continue to provide a forum for these efforts.
For three full days we worked in plenary and small groups, holding spirited debates to explore the challenges and identify action priorities that would help us to get closer to solutions. Participants shared their knowledge and opinions. They described on the ground experiences from large to small-scale projects, lessons learned, and views on how to make progress ranging from integrated design to procurement practices. I facilitated the first day of discussion on engineering and ecological guidelines, and approaches.
While engineers work to well-honed specifications seeking a fixed and stable outcome, ecosystem scientists focus on processes, their approach is to facilitate ecosystem dynamics that will result in habitat changes over time. A challenge is to bring these two kinds of systems and thinking together. Codes of practice, issues of client versus beneficiary, liability, reliability, and community engagement were much discussed. Ecological-Engineering is a multi-functional effort and one that will require long-term focus and demonstration pilot projects. It is critical to be clear to communities and clients the benefits and losses associated with ecosystem only, engineering only, and hybrid (ecosystem-engineering) solutions. Cost is always a driver of what is possible. Engineering solutions can mean higher building and maintenance cost compared to nature-based or hybrid ones. The question is whether the costs are justified for the benefits, or whether risks are perceived as too great to leave the solution to nature. Communities vary in their knowledge of nature, their uses of their natural resources, and the level of risks that they are willing to bear. Balancing the input of community knowledge with professional approaches and implementation needs to be considered. Nature-based projects should not be based only on local volunteerism since they require professional expertise and often involve large engineering works. Economic costs, incentives and financing for solutions will play a driving role in whether the best options are implemented or not.
Five umbrella priority Items were identified by the group for deeper exploration by the PEDRR partnership and participants themselves. Before the end of the gathering each group had identified specific next steps, with timelines and responsible parties. Everyone felt the urgency to move from ideas to action. The overarching priorities are briefly summarized as:
- Boundary Conditions: Under what conditions is this approach appropriate and who are the players, what are the synergies?
- Synthesis: What is known and where are the gaps?
- Guiding Principles: What guiding principles can shape the development and adoption of this approach including from specific standards to partnerships and pilot projects?
- Incorporating Ecosystems and Disaster Risk Reduction into the education process at all levels.
- Articulating and realizing multiple benefits: A conceptual approach to drive action, one that defines ecosystem functions/composition, metrics, benefits and losses, stakeholder values, as well as entry points, leverage points and developing case studies.
In the city of Beethoven we did not compose a musical masterpiece, we did however collectively create a dynamic symphony with disparate but harmonic voices working towards a common opus.
Deborah Brosnan Ph.D
*Thank you to the UN and PEDRR especially to Marisol Estrella, Fabrice Renaud, Karen Sudemeir, Muralee Thummarukudy, Zita Sebesvari and Jakob Rhyner, who were instrumental in conceiving and organizing this effort. My deep appreciation to all who participated and engaged. Personal opinions are my own. This is an inclusive effort that welcomes the participation of professionals and societies who can and wish to contribute. Please make contact if you are interested in knowing more and/or collaborating **Formally established in 2008, the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR) is a global alliance of UN agencies, NGOs and specialist institutes (pedrr.org). Image, top and bottom left courtesy of PEDRR and Karen Sudermeir, others Debraoh Brosnan.