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  • Writer's pictureFiona Smith

The role of natural capital in catchment management

This is an excerpt from a paper given by Donal Daly, manager of the Catchments Unit at the EPA, at a meeting of the International Association of Hydrogeologists (Irish Chapter) in Tullamore in April 2017. It explores the role of natural capital in catchment management and outlines a framework for 'catchment services'. The full paper can be downloaded at the bottom.

We live and work in a world in which the environment is challenged by the activities of humankind. The natural capital on which life on the planet depends is deteriorating. While the overall quality of Ireland’s environment is good in comparison to many other countries, the situation with our water quality, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions is unsatisfactory.

As the future is everyone’s responsibility, there is an onus on us to evaluate how we, both as individuals and groups, can contribute to the changes that Irish society needs to make. This paper presents thoughts on ways that we can do this by:

putting people at the core of environmental management;ensuring genuine sustainable development by developing and utilising the natural capital approach, as this provides a means of accounting for nature, including water, biodiversity, mineral resources, etc., and of attempting to ensure that natural capital is not diminished by human activities.integrating geosystem services into natural capital as a parallel service to ecosystem services thereby making it more holistic and defensible as an approach;making Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) the over-arching framework and process for water management.  While the natural capital approach and concept can provide a means of accounting for nature and of ensuring that the level of natural capital is maintained as part of a sustainable growth path, a value must be put on these assets. Ecosystem services is a vital component of natural capital; it is well understood and is an area of intensive research both in Ireland and internationally.

Figure 2: Catchment services encompassing the components of natural capital – ecosystem and geosystem services, and the social and economic services provided by people living in the catchment (Daly, 2016). 

​Catchment Services

However, it does not encompass all the elements of natural capital and concentration on it alone could hinder development of the natural capital approach. Geosystem services are provided by the physical or abiotic components of the environment not linked to ecosystems. Both ecosystem services and geosystem services, together with human-social system services in combination form "catchment services" (Daly, 2016). 

The value of using these three subdivisions of services within the concept of catchment management is as follows: It helps ensure that all relevant services are considered in an integrated manner, thereby assisting in achieving sustainability.The conceptual framework encourages linkages between water management, biodiversity objectives, land-use planning and the ICM approach. Currently, there is a tendency to treat biodiversity and water quality objectives separately, for instance in agri-environment schemes. While many measures designed for biodiversity also assist in achieving water quality objectives (including drinking water safety) and vice versa, the co-benefits are not achieved because the measures are not usually considered collectively (e.g., planting crop cover for bird species can have dual/multiple benefits provided the crop is planted in the vicinity of a stream).The catchment services concept links natural capital with human/social capital and therefore builds on the intellectual, promotional and educational opportunities provided by the natural capital concept.Consideration of all three types of services is necessary in preparing River Basin Management Plans as part of the implementation of the WFD.From the perspective of local communities, it is comprehensive and includes the complete mosaic of physical, ecological, cultural and infrastructural features and functions, thereby giving a sense of comfort that no one area is dominating and that the needs of local communities are taken into account.

Download the full paper here:

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