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Natural infrastructure is an area or a system that is naturalized or naturally occurring and then managed by humans to provide several benefits for human well-being and the environment. The natural infrastructure consists of an active management component aimed primarily at conserving and providing key advantages such as clean water, climate resilience, biodiversity, etc. Investing in natural infrastructure is essential today amid the current environmental crisis.
Investing in natural infrastructure, such as wetlands, forests, and coral reefs can provide numerous benefits to both human and non-human life.
Take, for example, the indigenous Khasi people and their story on The Living Bridge of Meghalaya. The Khasi people trained the living aerial roots of the Indian rubber fig tree to act as a bridge. The living roots bridges across rivers that often expand in violent monsoons, which would destroy any other type of bridge. The natural bridge provides safe and guaranteed passage to local people and will continue to do so for hundreds of years. It is an excellent example of natural infrastructure.
Investing in natural infrastructure by funding the construction and maintenance of natural infrastructures and recognizing the benefit and cost-effectiveness of these infrastructures needs to increase.
The G20 Global Infrastructure Outlook states that nearly US$94 trillion in investment is required by 2040 to close infrastructure gaps. Further, approximately $3.5 trillion is needed to achieve universal household access to drinking water and electricity by 2030. However, certain infrastructures can significantly threaten the environment and its functioning. Almost 29 percent of threats to biodiversity are caused by infrastructure development, according to the World Economic Forum Future Of Nature and Business.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development research indicates that natural or nature-based infrastructure can provide similar, effective, and resilient infrastructure services. Natural infrastructure’s added value is 28 percent higher than traditional grey infrastructure, which translates to $489 billion per annum in terms of dollars. If the world swapped just 11 percent of grey infrastructure with natural infrastructure, around $248 billion would be saved per year.
There is no doubt that natural infrastructures benefit the environment and save a huge amount of money. However, the financial and economic calculus often ignores investments in nature-based solutions. Natural capital rarely accumulates investment capital as nature is always viewed as a limitless resource for humans to exploit without account.
Viewing nature as a solution can help countries all over the world mitigate climate challenges. For example, natural infrastructures like wetlands and mangroves can strengthen the performance of grey infrastructure built for flood protection.
Ignoring natural solutions will result in a disproportionate flow of investments to grey infrastructure, regardless of its cost and environmental impacts. This needs to change for the benefit of the planet and human beings.