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Water management's crucial role in restoring degraded landscapes

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"Inland and coastal water ecosystems are overstretched, and restoring them is key to the whole planetary resilience," says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Wetlands International. Despite this, she remains optimistic, sensing that collaboration is in the air. She believes that the recovery of healthy landscapes depends on integrated water resource management, involving collaboration among many sectors.

In this interview, Jane reflects on the outcomes of the United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Conference, landscape restoration, and the collaboration in private-public partnerships (PPPs) of the Dutch Sustainable Water Fund (FDW) in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Although many wetlands worldwide are in a poor state, Jane sounds remarkably positive. This is partly due to the outcomes of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December last year, where it was agreed that 30% of the planet's lands, coastal areas, and inland waters will be protected by 2030.

All parties also agreed on the sustainable use of biodiversity and an equal share of all resources. Companies are being incentivised to mainstream the protection and restoration of nature across their operations and supply chains. "There are some very meaningful targets," according to Jane, who attended the conference. "This will trigger collaboration, finance, and action to improve the water resource environment," she is convinced.

Restoration of functions: the role of integrated water resource management

Jane believes that the COP15 outcomes will provide a lot of scope for integrated water resource management (IWRM) as an essential tool to restore functionality across deteriorating landscapes. This includes bringing back healthy ecosystems with biodiversity and ensuring sustainable natural resource use for food and fresh water supplies.

"At Wetlands International, we learnt it is important not to jump to technical solutions before you understand how the natural system connects to socio-economic systems," she explains. This notion was confirmed by the collaboration in 2 PPP projects of the FDW programme.

The coastal restoration project in Indonesia has finished, and the river basin project in Ethiopia is still ongoing. She reflects on both on celebrating 10 years of the FDW programme.

World flagship: the Building with Nature coastal restoration project in Indonesia

Jane also found the UN Biodiversity conference meaningful because the United Nations announced the first 10 World Restoration flagships as the best, most inspirational examples of large-scale ecosystem restoration. The Building with Nature coastal restoration project in Indonesia was one of them, and Jane was there to represent the PPP that realised it.

"The diverse partnership was a critical success factor. It focused on coordinated actions based on systems understanding," she explains. "That would have come to nothing if we did not have that wide variety of partners from different sectors, working together on engineering, ecology, communication, policy, capacity building and research." Partners collaborating in the PPP included the Dutch consortium EcoShape, NGOs, Indonesian Ministries of Marine Affairs and Public Works, knowledge institutes, local communities and consultancies.

"We put the local communities in the driver's seat. They were well-informed, supported and motivated. They knew that if they did nothing about the erosion, they would have to leave [their livelihood behind]. Safety was the trigger," she assures. "Our knowledge-based system approach did not only bring back a mangrove belt that will protect them against floods. It also improved the security and productivity of their shrimp ponds. We created a financial incentive mechanism to restore the mangroves and a sustainable fishery".

Productive landscapes

The Indonesian project achieved many objectives by addressing various coastal issues, increasing biodiversity, climate resilience, and sustainable productivity. Jane emphasises the importance of linking work on inland, coastal, and marine waters. Various factors, including drainage, river channelisation, over-abstraction of groundwater, and clearance of mangroves, influence land subsidence and erosion.

"This was an important topic at the COP15 conference in Montreal. Some wanted to keep the framework simple by setting targets only for land and sea. We argued that restoring the terrestrial or ocean environments would not be possible without restoring the connectivity between freshwater, coastal and marine systems. Now the framework requires effective conservation and management of at least 30% of all the world's inland waters". Jane underlines the importance of IWRM to bring back this connectedness.

This brings her to an appreciation of water-related ecosystems. "Land degradation is often associated with forest clearance. But the loss and degradation of wetlands, including rivers and their floodplains, lakes, ponds, marshes, peatlands, and saltmarshes, is a massive cause alongside forest clearance. Drainage, dams and water diversions for industrial-style agriculture are among the biggest ongoing threats to wetlands, yet we need to double global food production.

Different sectors have to come together to find regenerative food solutions that actively restore and reinforce natural systems. At the latest climate summit COP27 and the biodiversity summit COP15, I saw many sessions full of representatives of companies. Collaboration was in the air. There seems to be a dramatic shift in mindset happening."


This brings her to the PPP that focuses on strengthening the river basin authority and enabling collective water management in the Ziway Shalla Basin in Ethiopia. Here, a wide range of partners, especially Ethiopian stakeholders, is involved in developing water allocation plans to address water scarcity during droughts and floods during rainy seasons. "River basin authorities are currently too poorly resourced and lack the most necessary capacities to stop over-abstraction of freshwater and improve watershed management."

With the Ethiopian water authority (Rift Valley Lake basin development office in the lead), and partner Waternet, a local farmer cooperative and seedling grower, the capacity for that is built. "By introducing fair and transparent water allocation and improving the efficiency of irrigation water use by smallholders, we will improve water and food security, reverse land degradation, replenish the iconic Rift Valley Lakes and safeguard their biodiversity," she explains.

The PPP aims to support the capacity of the Ethiopian water authority and to implement landscape-scalable solutions since measures are needed to bring water resilience.

More private involvement

The formula for coastal restoration in Indonesia is being replicated in other parts of Indonesia and countries in Asia. "Governments struggle to do this kind of landscape transformation on their own. It proves difficult for ministries to combine for integrated solutions that connect across sectors and scales," concludes Jane.

"We do need more involvement from the private sector. We must join expertise and innovation between disciplines such as ecology, engineering, and socio-economics. At Wetlands International, we often act as a facilitator to bring the parties together to create these kinds of landscape propositions and develop a business case for public-private investments. A big political, social, and technical challenge exists to bring those landscape collaborations together across companies, sectors, government and local communities. There is work to do!"

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