Natural infrastructure like rivers, wetlands, lakes, forests, and floodplains help clean, store, and transport our water, provide habitats to many food sources, and enable other natural resource abundance (clean air, timber, etc.). As we have presented, water pollution, degraded physical processes, poor watershed management, and outdated and inefficient built infrastructure has caused serious issues to our water quality and quantity, leaving our water, food, energy, and health at risk. Below, we will discuss how specific improvements will increase our water security.
With water quality the world’s biggest health risk, and still threatening developed countries, more simply has to be done to secure clean drinking water. Through efforts and projects aimed at improving water quality, humans will benefit from the following.
- Improving water quality by reducing agriculture and city runoff will reduce the amount of pollutants in our water. Reduction in agricultural runoff will drastically reduce nutrient pollution, which is responsible for algae blooms. Algae blooms happen worldwide, and not only threaten our water quality, but certain types of algae can pose threats to human and animal lives. Every year, algae blooms cost millions of dollars in damages and economical losses, reduce the efficiency of water treatment plants, and kill many aquatic animals. By reducing these pollutants, we will improve our water quality, reduce economical expenditures associated with algae, improve fish habitat (which can increase our food security), and maintain high levels of recreation and tourism.
- Through improving the water quality, we will naturally improve the ecosystems. Research shows that healthier rivers, with diverse biotic species can naturally process nutrient pollution and help prevent disease outbreaks. By improving our water quality, it can help maintain it's own quality, and thus be a more resilient system.
The natural processes of river hydraulics, morphology, and vegetation allow rivers to expand their networks, deliver nutrients, and maintain healthy sustainable ecosystems. Specific benefits to our security include:
Dams: While the biggest inhibitor of river processes are dams, dams are also very beneficial to our water supply security, energy generation, and recreational opportunities. However, dams are also disconnecting and inhibiting natural ecosystems and as a result causing significant issues. While many of these dams are not being removed anytime soon, there are abilities for dams to help pass sediment, allow fish passage, and regularly release necessary flood flows to benefit downstream ecosystems.
- By passing sediment, dams will maintain storage capacity and downstream river reaches receiving sediment are less susceptible to incision. Incision causes deep riverbed erosion that can lead to dangerous landslides, degraded water quality, and the lowering of the watertable.
- Allowing fish passage around dams will enable greater fish populations to reach their desired spawning areas, and thus increase fish numbers and diversity in rivers necessary for healthy rivers, and ultimately benefiting the entire food web.
- Releasing semi-regular flood flows from dams will benefit the entire ecosystem through floodplain connectivity and encouraging the dynamic processes that help maintain an equilibrium system. Specific benefits are the maintancence of vegetation that prevents overgrown floodplains and the creation of new habitats that ensure sustainable river health, and thus improve our water quality and potential fish recreational activities.
Through strategic site planning, design, and watershed considerations, future dams can be less damaging if located off the main-stems of rivers (i.e. locate them in tributaries), allow fish passage, and be placed in steep reaches where less acreage of valuable habitats are inundated. Finally, there are alternatives to dams, that not only have less overall impact on ecosystems, but may be more resilient to future climate changes. Specifically, pumped storage facilities can achieve water storage and convenient energy generation, and because they are not as expensive to construct as dams, they offer a more flexible option to our uncertain future of changing climatic conditions.
Removing structures and land uses that restrict floodplain connectivity and width will provide the river with greater room to inundate during flood events. This is extremely valuable during a flood event, as the wider inundation will reduce the water's velocity in many parts, and ultimately make the flood event less dangerous. Further, by creating increased room for the rivers to naturally inundate during flood events, additional benefit such as natural ecosystems absorbing and storing the water for ground water recharge an nutrients/pollutants processing.
Watershed protection has been shown to drastically improve water quality and quantity as well as save billions of dollars that would be required for water treatment plant construction.
- Historically, agriculture and forestry have seen wetlands as waste lands and modified the areas for their benefits. Through collaborations and funding schemes such as Conservation Reserve Programs, and water quality trading, farmers and land owners can be compensated to retire certain agricultural land, restore wetlands and other valuable habitats. These actions not only increase the ecosystems functionality and vitality, but help the lands store water and release it during droughts, and thus increasing our water supply security and improve water quality.
- Worldwide, there are millions of abandoned and active mines that process heavy metals with toxic chemicals, that often are released into nearby streams, lakes, and wetlands. Through abandoned mine land reclamation, much of these sources of heavy metals can be stopped. Heavy metals such as mercury, silver, and
Infrastructure is outdated, and continued leaks and infiltration of contaminants will be a constant source of insecurity until widespread upgrades are accomplished.
- By improving infrastructure, societies can prevent large amounts of water going to waste and prevent millions of dollars worth of damages, and reduce risks to lives.
- By installing new water infrastructure pipe networks, communities can improve their overall water quality, where many developed countries still are in contact with harmful metals from our pipe networks.
- Improving the efficiency will not only save money, but will ultimately reduce our water consumption, and provide greater water security for ourselves, and the valuable ecosystems that help reduce pollution.
Finally, we need to be environmentally consciences about what developments are built in relation to sensitive ecosystems. As noted in the watershed section, wetlands have long been seen as wastelands. Similarly, coastal mangroves have also been seen undesirable, and removed during construction. However, both wetlands and mangroves not only process pollutants, provide rich habitats for biotic species, but also help reduce the impacts of storm events and ultimately be the first line of defense.
- New York City does not have a water treatment facility. Instead, it uses watershed protection efforts to keep the city's water supply clean. This has saved New York billions of dollars.
- economic value of unconverted wetlands is often greater than that of converted wetlands (Millennium Assessment)
- Global climate change is expected to exacerbate the loss and degradation of many wetlands and the loss or decline of their species and to increase the incidence of vector-borne and waterborne diseases in many regions.
- Reef and mangrove restoration was one of the most cost-effective approaches to catesrophic coastal risk reduction and adaptation (World Bank)