A growing number of people, societies and companies are discovering the power of resilient landscapes. It is still possible to shift to more sustainable practices that recharge water, restore soil health, sequester carbon, and strengthen biodiversity – but we need to make the transformation now.

Humans rely on healthy ecosystems for almost everything, including the water we drink and the food that we eat. But unsustainable land use is bringing more and more ecosystems dangerously close to collapsing. Humans have disrupted the water cycle, eroded soil health, and caused massive loss of biodiversity. The result is increasingly degraded landscapes that eventually will not provide the clean water, fibre, energy, food, and carbon storage that our societies rely on.

The situation is serious: according to the Global Assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services, we are already living in an era of mass extinction of species that could also threaten human existence. Particularly during times of abrupt change, such as the global warming we are currently experiencing, natural variations within species of ecosystems should be thought of as nature’s insurance policy. If the most common species in an ecosystem have trouble coping with a particular change, other varieties of that species may be better able to adapt and uphold the same function in a biodiverse ecosystem.

For decades, we have ignored this knowledge, and instead turned more and more land into cities or industrial farms with little to no room for biodiversity. We have dammed and diverted rivers to get energy and irrigation. Natural forests have been replaced with gigantic monocultures. To compensate for reduced soil quality, we have intensified the use of fertilisers, even though it pollutes rivers and groundwater.

These practices leave humans more vulnerable in the long run: less groundwater is recharged, the quality of water and soils continues to deteriorate, and we are more exposed to the droughts and floods that will increase in the wake of global warming. But there are alternatives and across the world people are rediscovering more sustainable forms of land use.

Water at the center of resilient landscapes

Increasingly, more farmers are exploring regenerative farming, where crop rotation, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, and other practices make agriculture more robust and sustainable. Wetlands and forests are being restored. Communities are protecting their local watersheds and managing forests in a way that improves groundwater recharge. Cities are better integrating trees, wetlands, and farmlands to increase clean water, boost carbon storage, and reduce the risk of flooding. Agriculture and forestry are shifting to management practices that support biodiversity, water security, human well-being, and cultural values.

The water cycle is crucial to all of these processes. Landscapes with a well functioning hydrology cycle provide water and food, sustain biodiversity, and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

What all these solutions have in common is that they help us tackle several of the world’s greatest challenges simultaneously. By innovatively working together with nature, we can improve the lives of the poorest societies, mitigate climate change, and strengthen biodiversity.  Though extinct species cannot return, it is possible to restore ecosystems so that they again thrive and become more resilient, to the benefit of both humans and nature.