Advocating Nature-Based Solutions for a Sustainable Northeast

Article by Mayuri Phukan

Since the last decade, the term “Nature-based Solutions” (NbS) has been able to garner interest within the sustainability research community. NbS uses or mimics the natural ecosystem to offer solutions to various environmental challenges. These can be used alone or in conjunction with the available engineered infrastructure, and are also known to provide various co-benefits.

NbS can largely be categorized into three major types:

  1. Solutions which make better use of existing ecosystems (E.g. Increasing fish production in a wetland for income generation and food security)
  2. Solutions based on protocol development for managing ecosystems (E.g. Integrated farming systems for soil and water conservation in farmlands, re-establishing agro-forestry to generate income)
  3. Solutions that integrate new infrastructure in existing ecosystems (E.g. Building green walls in cities for a healthy urban ecosystem)

As examples, the use of green roofs (building roofs covered with selected vegetation) can reduce water runoff, provide insulation effect thereby saving energy required for cooling and reduce urban heat island effect. Installation of permeable pavements in walkways can control rainwater runoff thereby slowing down of sewer overflows. Vegetated waterways (covering the path of water runoff with vegetation) can reduce erosive power of water and promote infiltration. Diversification of agriculture and agroforestry (growing of value-added trees/shrubs in food crop farms) can increase farmer income, increase carbon dioxide sequestration and reduce crop failure risk.

These are limited examples from the plethora of solutions that are being identified under the umbrella term of NbS. However, the common idea that binds all is that NbS seeks to provide social, economic and ecological co-benefits including environmental restoration, livelihood generation, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Nature-based Solutions are site-specific and adapted to local conditions and they avoid changing an ecosystem: so actions like replacing a natural mixed woodland by monoculture tree plantation, will be discouraged by NbS. These solutions are to be implemented after a thorough understanding of different stakeholder groups within a landscape.

Taking inspiration from nature for the development of concepts to serve various societal purposes is not new: communities around the world have several such practices. However, the formalization of NbS term and showcasing it in international platforms have been backed by various agencies such as IUCN, UN and European Commission. India has also undertaken several NbS initiatives to build evidence on the applicability of these solutions. For supporting the upscaling and large-scale interventions of NbS, it is essential to make sure that they are incorporated in National and State level policies. There are few efforts by India which can encourage uptake of these solutions. India is a part of the Bonn Challenge for the pledge of Forest Landscape Restoration, with a commitment to restore 26 million hectares by 2030. The National Agroforestry Policy of 2014 encourages tree plantation integrated with crop and livestock. IUCN has recently launched the Global Standard for NbS in Asia to enable public and private sectors to design, implement and monitor NbS.

Examples of Nature-based Solutions implemented in different parts of the world

Figure: Examples of Nature-based Solutions implemented in different parts of the world

Northeast India is in the brink of changes with various development policies being promoted, industrial presences and socio-demographic changes. While working towards economic development, we need to think if Northeast can also take inspiration from scientific advances to cope up with its environmental concerns such as land degradation, floods and erosion, water contamination, loss of forest cover. Implementation of NbS does not translate to the refusal of accepting engineering solutions: on many occasions, NbS work in conjunction with prevalent systems. Use of NbS can not only help the region in reducing environmental risks and impact conservation efforts but also boost the local economy and promote alternative livelihoods.

The biggest advantage the region has in this regard is the familiarity of certain concepts, which may increase the acceptability of communities to these solutions. Like, Zabo farming system of Nagaland is an integrated farming system for water and soil conservation with a combination of crops, livestock and fishery. The long-standing practice of the bamboo-drip system of Meghalaya where spring water is diverted to lower part of hills using bamboo has the same concept of today’s micro-irrigation drip system. These days, wetlands are being promoted for water quality improvement, wastewater treatment, flood management and improving food security. Northeast has about 5133 wetlands, however, a lot of these faces encroachment and degradation These structures can be restored and used effectively to provide ecosystem services. Another aspect of NbS is the opportunity of turning it into a business venture. Funds under various flagship schemes such as National Clean Energy and Environment Fund, Compensatory Afforestation Fund can be used for NbS based projects. Planning, design and implementation of NbS can help local entrepreneurs from the region.

Like every step towards sustainability, one needs to remember that every solution is as good as its fit to the site conditions. There are abundant national and international case studies of incorporating NbS: both failures and successful examples need to be studied and understood for adapting them to the region. While opportunities lie abundant to incorporate NbS in Northeast’s context, researchers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers will have to come together for their viable application.

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