How to effectively retain water. A guide for local governments

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Water resources in Poland, compared to other European countries, are not large. However, whether we will have water problems in the future also depends on ourselves – on how we manage it. And it doesn’t look good so far. We don’t treat water as a precious commodity – in every home, we flush toilets and water gardens with treated water for drinking. To make matters worse, as a society, we are transforming the natural landscape in such a way that it loses its natural ability to hold water. And we are surprised that we are increasingly affected by floods and droughts. So it’s worth taking a step back and looking at what can be done about it from a broader perspective. While it’s still not really bad.

The WWF Poland Foundation has prepared a publication titled “The World’s Best. “Natural retention – a guide and examples of actions for local governments”. The compendium was developed by an expert team of the Hectares for Nature Foundation and the Association of Polish Urban Planners. It aims to inspire and guide the implementation of activities beyond blue-green infrastructure in cities, to pay special attention to the protection and restoration of wetlands. The guide includes specific ways of storing water, already proven by some local governments – in urban areas, but also in undeveloped areas: swamps, forests, farmland and along rivers. The publication also includes brief descriptions of national and regional (provincial) programs.

Retaining water in the landscape – this is the best and most beneficial way to retain water where we need it most.

Instead of getting rid of water from our fields, forests and backyards, it is worth keeping it on them and using it locally for as long as possible. Such “small-scale retention” is a simple and effective method to reduce the effects of drought and fight floods. If we started to apply it en masse, it would go from being “small retention” to “large retention.” These are precisely the solutions that benefit people and the environment, and this is what modern EU strategies, programs and funding are focused on. Our guide is designed to help local governments prepare projects and obtain funding for their implementation – emphasizes Piotr Nieznański, the initiator of the guide, and advisor to the Board of Directors on the subject. Environment at the WWF Poland Foundation.

Consequences of sealing urban areas

The lack of greenery and absorptive surfaces, on the one hand, increases the temperature in the city – creating the so-called “green”. urban heat island, while on the other hand, it reduces the absorption of dust and carbon dioxide, i.e. worsens air quality significantly. Sealing the surface also has a significant effect on reducing evaporation, which contributes to lower humidity and higher temperatures. From asphalt- and concrete-covered surfaces, water from rainfall is usually discharged into drains and then into rivers. By restricting water’s ability to soak into the ground, we interfere with an important element of its circulation in nature – we inhibit the natural recharge of groundwater, and it is thanks to them that rivers also flow when it doesn’t rain.

Recent very hot summers show that we have less and less water in rivers. We are worried about “what about the drought?” and we are pinning the cause on climate change. True, the climate is changing before our eyes, but that’s not the only reason for the drought effects we’re seeing.

Over the past decades, we have been carrying out drainage management, ensuring that water is drained as quickly as possible to avoid flooding or to allow agricultural and forestry use of wetlands. We have straightened rivers, enclosed them with embankments, built thousands of hydraulic facilities, including dam reservoirs, and drained swampy areas. By transforming the landscape of river catchments and the wetland ecosystems themselves, we have disrupted nature’s natural water cycle processes, which are essential for storing resources in the ground and for evaporation. As a result, much of the water in this cycle drains away from us, and the water that remains does not necessarily appear where it is most needed.

It is enough to count that if we “caught” rain from 1% of the area of compact buildings in a large city, such as Wroclaw, we could capture 14,000m3 of water. That’s how much is consumed annually by more than 400 people in Poland – Roman Konieczny, editor of the guidebook, points out.

The problem is not only summer water shortages, which will become more frequent due to the effects of a changing climate. It’s also a flooding problem. The rapid discharge of rainwater from sealed or vegetation-free surfaces, through drainage systems, directly into watercourses, is causing local floods to occur faster and larger than before.

Proven actions

It is comforting to know that awareness of the need to retain water in the landscape is growing. Many local government units in Poland have been consciously developing natural retention, most often in the form of so-called “natural retention”. blue-green infrastructure.

Increasingly, green yards, green roofs are being built in large cities, and grass is appearing on bus shelters or on tracks. Cities are introducing above-ground water tanks (e.g., Wroclaw) or rain gardens (e.g., Gdansk and Krakow), emphasizing the effectiveness of such installations. Local governments are also creating tools (legal, financial and informational) to get residents to take action – preparing guides, organizing promotional campaigns, offering grants.

Bottom-up initiative

The grassroots, local activities of the big cities can therefore be an inspiration for these smaller cities and towns and all the municipalities in Poland.

A far greater challenge ahead is the restoration of rivers, lakes or the re-wetting of peatlands. It is the wetlands, preserved in their natural, “healthy” state, that are most effective in dealing with water problems – not only shortages and excesses, but also poor quality. Therefore, we need good education and joining forces on many fronts, openness in cooperation, and co-creation of initiatives and activities that will help us restore wetland ecosystems to a better state than they are now – points out Ilona Biedroń, vice president of the Hectares for Nature Foundation, under whose leadership the guide was created.

The publication “Natural retention – a guide and examples of actions for local governments” can be downloaded from the WWF website.

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