By Shah Khalid Shah Jee
Today, climate change is one of the biggest challenges, not only for human beings and other living creatures but also for the environment as a whole. We hear and read about climate change every day in all types of media – and in daily life we ourselves increasingly experience the negative impacts, such as severe rainfall and related floods and more extreme droughts and heatwaves. Additionally, some countries are much more vulnerable to these impacts than others.
For the past several years worldwide, various measures have been taken by many countries and organizations to mitigate the risk of climate change and its catastrophic effects in some ways. Being often most severely affected by negative effects of climate change, developing countries are trying to do their best to cope with the enormous challenges. Implementation of measures however progresses slowly, compared to more developed countries. Besides limited resources, developing countries have to tackle many more challenges compared to more developed countries. One is the lack of people’s awareness and the second is the lack of expertise about climate change’s negative impact and how to mitigate the negative impacts.
Nonetheless, activities to mitigate the risks of changing climate take place. One interesting example is from Pakistan. The Tribal District Bajaur is part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, situated in the north of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. The Mahmund River is the largest river in the area and experiences regular floods, damaging homes, agricultural land and life stock. With climate change, the intensity of flooding has increased. River walls have been installed but do not provide enough protection from floods. The local community works on solutions by planting trees along the rivers to stabilize slopes. With a lack of cooperation on different levels and little knowledge transfer, farmers tackle the challenges on their own based on their experiences. The local famer Norullah Khan told us that his agricultural field is at flood risk every year and that he sometimes sustains huge losses. “But when I started planting trees and other indigenous plants around the field, especially the river side bank, this protects it from floods and this has been producing good results.” He said other farmers are also doing this by planting Pine, Varnish tree, Faucet plant and other local plants species to stabilize riverbanks and agricultural plots. With small trees originating from own nurseries free of charge or purchased at the local market for little money, costs for these actions are very low.
While planting trees to reduce the impacts of floods might look unpretentious at first sight, in recent years, scientists and practitioners go new ways to address the challenges of climate change. Nature in fact can provide many, often quite simple, but elegant solutions or provide inspiration to reduce the risks of natural hazards like floods, droughts, landslides, rock fall and heatwaves. They are called Nature Base Solutions or, shortly, NBS.
The PHUSICOS project – examples of nature-based solutions
The Technical University of Munich, Chair for Strategic Landscape Planning and Management in Germany, has been working for on this topic intensively since its beginnings. The chair of Prof. Pauleit was established in 2006 by the Allianz Umweltstiftung (Allianz environment foundation – Allianz is one of the largest insurance companies worldwide) to address these questions in research, consultancy and teaching. The chair is part of the Department of Ecology and Ecosystem Sciences at the Center of Life Sciences in Weihenstephan.
Research Associate Dr. Aude Zingraff-Hamed explains: “Our chair addresses questions such as development and implementation of visions and strategies for the sustainable development of landscapes. We work in both urban and rural landscapes to increase the capacity to cope with the huge challenges of the 21st century in research, consultancy, and teaching.” She emphasizes the broad spectrum of methods that researchers at the chair work with: “Both my colleagues and I work with many approaches sourcing from social and ecological sciences, we conduct field samplings, mapping or modeling but also assess planning tools, regulations, policies, communication and stakeholder participation.” She added that she herself is “working on nature-based solutions to mitigate flood risk because socio-ecological planning will provide sustainable, robust, cost-efficient and ethical development of the human society.”
Dr. Zingraff-Hamed is funded by an ongoing project held by the chair, PHUSICOS, which focuses on reducing natural hazards. PHUSICOS, meaning “According to nature” in Greek, is sponsored by the European Union Horizon 2020 program for innovation actions (No. 776681). The project will demonstrate how nature-based and nature-inspired solutions provide robust, sustainable, and cost-effective measures for reducing the risk of extreme weather events in rural mountain landscapes.
One important outreach activity of the TUM partner is to transfer knowledge sourcing from a concept case: the Isar restoration in Munich. In this context, informing young professionals, researchers and stakeholders about Nature-Based Solutions as mitigation measures is of major importance. Once trained, the professionals can work in their own communities and act as multipliers to motivate people to get involved in work to help mitigate climate change’s negative impacts.
In 2020, the project originally planned to organize a training course workshop in Germany from September 7th to 16th which intended to include physical site visits and on-site training in mountainous areas of Germany and France. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person training was not possible. Therefore, the organizers, Dr. Aude Zingraff-Hamed and Dr. Gerd Lupp arranged an online training course for 19 selected participants from different countries and regions of the world instead. Participants of the webinar had environment-related backgrounds but worked in very different professions or study courses.
The course (see some screenshots below) provided many inputs from PHUSICOS partners from all over Europe. A key lecture on natural and cultural diversity of riverscapes and the relationship between human and river was held by Professor Karl Mathias Wantzen from the UNESCO chair for river culture. The sister project RECONECT also joined the event, offering a lecture from Dr. Frank Huesker on stakeholder participation.
One interesting example was the already mentioned Isar river restoration in Munich, a fast growing city and home to 1.6 Million inhabitants. After canalization to a narrow concrete riverbed, flood risks remained unsolved and in the light of climate change with more severe rain events, it became more and more a pressing issue for authorities. On the other side, the civil society was increasingly dissatisfied about the poor river quality in terms of water quality, biodiversity and access for recreation as one of the few larger green spaces in the inner city. With an intensive participatory approach and strong involvement of the civil society, between 2000 and 2011, the river was restored to a close to natural state with gravel bars and more river-like dynamics while providing more flood protection at the same time. The measures enhance biodiversity, permeability for fish and water organisms and, most important to the people of Munich, shallow river banks to allow a variety of nature- and water based leisure activities in and along the river. For the PHUSICOS project, the case serves as a good practice example to learn from the experiences made.
Another interesting case is a site in the Pyrenees, a mountain range between France and Spain. The area also faces more floods, landslides, avalanches and rock fall induced by more severe rain events because of climate change.
Here, afforestation will stabilize the slopes and establishment of new forests at high altitudes in triggering areas will help to avoid masses gaining momentum and stopping them. Efforts have to be taken together with stakeholders and their local expertise has to be used to choose the right tree species that will be adapted to the changing climate as well as suitable to the local conditions to secure biodiversity. Wooden constructions will protect young trees until they are strong and big enough to withstand the extreme conditions in the rugged terrain. Along a connecting road on the French side of the mountain range, a hybrid solution will be implemented, reflecting a solution implemented successfully on the Spanish side a century ago. To stabilize slopes for afforestation and to slow down water runoff, debris and mudflow, slopes were terraced using local rock materials for construction. On the terraces, trees were planted and forests could establish that can fulfill their protection role for the people living in the valleys. The proposed measure in PHUSICOS will pick up this solution to better protect the connecting road between France and Spain.
Participants of the course studied in detail two cases of their choice to illustrate the broad variety of Nature-Based Solutions. They reflected on their perception of the concept of Nature Based Solutions considering their experiences and backgrounds and on the influence of the cultural, demographic and geographical context on the solution design.
Also, participants were asked to suggest potential risks where Nature Based Solutions can be implemented as a solution from their perspective, background and their home countries. From their global perspectives, reducing natural hazards induced by climate change such as floods, fires, storm, avalanches, landslides, erratic rainfall, extreme heat were most important. The participants also saw the opportunity of Nature Based Solutions to also address socio-ecological challenges such as reducing poverty, environmental justice and enhancing benefits ecosystems provide for humans.
The PHUSICOS workshop – a participant’s perspective
Representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds and origins, reaching beyond the perspective of the global north, the participants were asked to elaborate and discuss on objectives for Nature-Based solutions from their perspective. The most important objectives for the participants were the aim to mitigate the diverse societal challenges while gaining diverse co-benefits and improve or restore ecosystems in combination with social and economic well-being. Nature Based Solutions could also be used to promote biodiversity, ecosystem integrity and health as they have great consistency with the strong sustainability theory and they show that measures using nature itself can be socially optimal solutions.
A PhD scholar, Maria Riffat, was one of the participants in the webinar training workshop. She said that it was a unique training workshop for her because it was a totally online webinar and the topic, Nature Base Solution (NBS), was also new for most of the participants. She did not know much about NBS before and said that she learned a lot of new information:
“I learned a lot about solutions to societal challenges based on ecosystem processes, ecosystem restoration and enhancement of ecosystem services. Nature Based Solutions for risk reduction aim to achieve their core goal, to reduce risks, as well as to gain multiple benefits for both humans and natural systems. It’s the implementation of solutions that takes into consideration the complexities of the coupled socio-ecological system that we live in. Because of that, it is an interdisciplinary approach with the intention to find the optimal solution for both humans and nature in the long run.’’
Maria also referred to the societal point of view and pointed out several aspects considered in the implementation of Nature Based Solutions: ‘’Social inequality is an example of a societal challenge. Slums and poorer areas are sometimes not as protected from climate hazards as more expensive places. This needs to be considered in Nature Based Solutions objectives.’’
In this webinar workshop, there also was practical training and one-on-one discussions between the participants to understand more about NBS in depth. “This was very good for me because I am a researcher on environmental topics and the training will give me more expertise to work towards climate change risk mitigation through Nature Base Solutions.” Maria expressed the wish that the Chair for Strategic Landscape Planning and Management will arrange more of this type of training workshops in the future for the awareness and training of people in environmental work.
The webinar workshop coordinators and organizers, Dr. Aude Zingraff-Hamed and Dr. Gerd Lupp, told us that the chair is continuously engaged in such training and knowledge transfer formats under normal circumstances. Talking with us, Dr. Gerd Lupp gave some insights in the chair´s activities on knowledge transfer and outreach of their research: “Besides regular teaching and lectures for our students, we offer different courses and training programs for various groups such as students, practitioners, experts, and scientists. With very different formats stretching from small expert workshops with less than 10 participants to international conferences with hundreds of participants. It is difficult to give even a rough number of the various outreach activities.” About the virtual format, he said. “Traditionally we had in-person summer schools, workshops or excursions with field trips. It is at the heart of landscape related sciences to have field trips to promote learning from seeing, “hands-on” and direct exchange with practitioners and stakeholders in the cases. The COVID-19 situation affects the way we teach and provide knowledge. Digital formats cannot fully replace these traditional formats. However, they offer new, interesting, and exciting opportunities for participants worldwide as well as new formats of training and more opportunities for bringing together people from all around the world as barriers to participation are lower”. According to the organizers, the COVID situation has boosted digitalization in teaching, knowledge sharing and transfer, and they predict that we will see many more webinars or hybrid formats with opportunities.
Another participant in the NBS webinar training workshop, Francisca Soto Bravo from Chile, stated on the webinar. “I’m only starting my master’s program (on environmental sciences) now in October and I don’t have a background on NBS or any discipline related to it. I did my bachelor’s in physics with a focus on astronomy, so for me the webinar was in a way an introduction to these topics. It was very useful for me to see the different aspects of NBS projects, the planning stage, the science behind it, differences between rural and urban settings, the stakeholder/governance aspect and much more to get a well-rounded impression about the topic and learn a little bit about everything instead of a lot about only one particular aspect. It was particularly interesting how we had participants coming from so many different countries and getting to hear about NBS projects taking place all over the world. But since I am currently based in Europe, it was also very interesting to hear the details of the PHUSICOS case studies and see what possibilities there are when it comes to projects taking place near me, where I could eventually get involved.”
She underlined that it was also the first time she attended an online webinar and used the video meeting program Zoom so intensively. It was a good opportunity to get used to the new format and learn to use the new technologies before the semester starts at university, that most likely will be held online due to the COVID pandemic. She also expressed the challenges of such online formats. “I was lucky that during the webinar I was on holiday, so I didn’t have to combine the webinar with any other previous commitments. It would have been difficult if I had had to work during that time, since the program was very time-consuming, and, as it was, I was quite tired by the end of the 10 days.”
Due to the importance to tackle climate change worldwide and stimulate learning from each other, the coordinators and organizers of this workshop plan to continue with such formats on climate change related topics and Nature Base Solutions in specific. They stated: “With the online format, we try to create awareness on how to mitigate the risks of climate change with nature and solutions nature can offer to us. It is very important to involve the civil society in finding, implementing and maintaining such solutions, so it is important to underline to work with stakeholders and local communities. It is great to see that while we need to maintain safe distance and travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we managed to bring together engaged people from all over the world to exchange and encourage them working on pressing climate change issues.”