Policy evolution – Building with Nature goes mainstream

For those with an active role in the Interreg NSR Building with Nature project, it may seem obvious: nature based solutions (NBS) of all kinds have already proven to be highly cost-effective and sustainable for some of the toughest flood management challenges facing the countries of the North Sea Region. And what’s more, they generally also deliver extensive co-benefits to both communities and vulnerable ecosystems. Among policymakers and decisionmakers who have experienced it first-hand, Building with Nature (BwN) is rapidly becoming mainstream. However, outside of those regions, communities, and environments where these solutions have been applied, BwN is still often perceived as unfamiliar, experimental, perhaps even financially risky. Not the best circumstances for a truly balanced assessment of BwN versus “classic” engineered flood control measures. With this in mind, the Policy Learning Group of the Interreg NSR BwN project has identified four barriers to the adoption of BwN within the North Sea Region and offers recommendations aimed at overcoming these barriers.

Policy learning

When the Interreg North Sea Region Building with Nature project was launched in 2015, there was already experience in the region with nature based solutions. Although the seven participating countries have a North Sea shoreline in common, the risk and consequences of inundation from the sea and rivers can differ greatly due to the diversity of landscapes: from flat river deltas to rugged highlands and fjords. Moreover, the political and governmental history of each country is unique, resulting today in considerable differences in the feasibility of implementing BwN solutions.

At the outset of the project, a Policy Learning Group was formed to stimulate and facilitate a trans-national conversation and to make sure that policy- and decisionmakers in all member states feel familiar with the concept of nature based solutions. The aim was to draw learning from the BwN interventions implemented in each country, from inception to completion. What policy do you need at a local, regional and national government level with respect to flood protection measures? What does it take to convince water management engineers to believe in nature based solutions? Who do you need to include in the problem definition and choice of solutions? How do you create a ‘level playing field’ when choosing between traditional and nature based solutions?

The Policy Learning Group recently consummated five years of research, discussion and sharing of experiences, by submitting a Policy Brief on BwN for Flood Resilience to the European Union in July 2020. We approached Rein van der Kluit, Chairman of the Policy Learning Group, for some insights into the group and their conclusions.

“The partners in the Policy Learning Group represent around 20 diverse organisations from the North Sea Region with a core mission of conserving and protecting a coast or catchment”, explains Rein, “From ministries and municipalities, to local water authorities, conservation groups and environmental protection agencies. In almost all cases, they have active or recent experience with nature-based flood control measures, but they also have longer experience with classical water management infrastructure, such as dykes, dams, flood channels, sea walls and groynes. So the group is familiar with all sides of the discussion.”

That certainly applies to Rein van der Kluit; he has been involved in water management for most of his career, including top positions with government departments and water authorities at regional, national and European level, as well as contributing to the founding of the World Water Forum.

The Policy Learning Group identified four barriers to the adoption of nature based solutions and made recommendations to tackle each of these.

“The first barrier is scientific evidence”


Rein van der Kluit: “The first barrier is scientific evidence. BwN is a relatively young approach to flood management, and we’re dealing with resilience against infrequent or long-term climate events with huge consequences. BwN aims to deliver that resilience, plus a host of other benefits for the environment and community at large. But an NBS proposal is often still referred to as a ‘pilot project’, as if it is a proof of concept! Many NBS’s have already proved themselves empirically: the effects are no longer disputed. For example, coastal sand nourishments and ‘room for the river’. But there is not yet a standard methodology for long-term quantitative evidence of the overall performance, before and after the NBS measure.”

“We therefore recommend the creation of a solid performance evidence base and a BwN assessment framework. There are currently no standard performance indicators for measuring and comparing BwN and classical infrastructure alternatives, and predicting outcomes for an entire system of effects: flood protection, water quality, landscape, habitats, community, recreation, economy, and more. This requires the monitoring of a whole range of parameters, from pre-intervention baseline, to way beyond project completion. Thanks in part to EU funding, detailed end-to-end monitoring programmes are now running on the Houtrib Dyke and Ameland Inlet projects in the Netherlands, and Eddleston water in Scotland.”

“The next barrier is poor stakeholder engagement”


“The next barrier is poor stakeholder engagement”, continues Rein. “You need to take account of every party with an interest in the current and future situation, and steer the conversation to ensure every voice is heard – right from the outset. Consider all the functions that the NBS can possibly deliver and try to address the needs of all stakeholders to get as many as possible on board. In the past, classical flood defences could simply be imposed on communities.  That time is over now. Our policy recommendation is therefore to listen to stakeholders of every kind, engage them, and involve them in the decision-making. They have important insights to contribute, as the Tweed Forum has proven in the Eddleston Water project.”

The third barrier they identified is the difficulty of financially comparing flood defence options

Bankable business case

The third barrier they identified is the difficulty of financially comparing flood defence options. “This is also related to the first two barriers”, explains Rein. “The multiple system benefits and costs of a BwN solution all need to be quantified and monetized, so that a complete business case can be made for funding. For example, if an NBS is expected to generate new tourism and recreation opportunities, this added value should be priced. When BwN and/or classical options are being compared, the same fully integrated approach to the cost-benefit analysis creates a ‘bankable business case’ for the selected option, and opens possibilities for additional sources of funding, such as those who stand to gain from the co-benefits. This approach has been taken successfully for funding of the Kleine Nete project in Belgium, and likewise the Twin Dyke project in the Netherlands.”

“The fourth barrier, we call the ‘governance gap’”

Governance gap

“In some regions, a BwN initiative can get so bogged down in red tape, that the traditional approach becomes the path of least resistance. This is the fourth barrier, which we call the ‘governance gap’: when the national or local legislative and regulatory framework is not conducive to the implementation of solid, justifiable BwN initiatives. Often this is the result of region-specific historical developments in government, administration and land ownership. The member states then need to solve this themselves by revising national legislation and regulations to be more BwN-friendly. Our recommendation is therefore to support and promote a better understanding of the importance and added value of BwN, and help them make the necessary legislative and regulatory transformation.”

What next?

The recent EU Policy Brief submission marks the end of the Policy Learning Group. The members of the group have produced a separate Policy Brief for each of the North Sea Region member states. Rein van der Kluit: “We hope that the Building with Nature approach will ultimately become the preferred choice for flood resilience in all member states. It is up to the participants in the Policy Learning Group to continue to advocate BwN in their home countries.”

Rein believes wholeheartedly in the need to switch to nature based solutions for flood control. In his words: “Where possible, build with nature; where you can’t, use hard structures.”

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