Water Infrastructure Solutions from Eco-system Services Underpinning Climate Resilient Policies and Programmes (WISE-UP to Climate)


International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)


Ghana Water Research Institute – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); The African Collaborative Centre for Earth System Sciences (ACCESS) – University of Nairobi; International Water Management Institute (IWMI); Overseas Development Institute (ODI); University of Manchester, U.K.; Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3)

Problem Statement

Ecosystem services need to be linked more directly and clearly into water infrastructure development, for climate change adaptation and integration into water, food and energy security.

Case Study

Water security is vital for growth, poverty reduction and climate change adaptation – issues of highest priority on the policy agenda for many developing countries. Built water infrastructure is an asset to store and regulate water to support social and economic development and facilitate adaptation to climate change. Yet competing policy narratives argue that built water infrastructure can degrade ecosystem services that the poor rely on most.

Climate change will dramatically change the way that infrastructure is planned, financed and used in the future. Less water and more erratic rainfall present challenges for large water storage in terms of technical performance, the return on investment, and the sharing of benefits.

WISE-UP aims to support new policies and strategies for water infrastructure that will better and more coherently address and integrate policy goals for growth, poverty reduction and climate adaptation. The project will demonstrate natural infrastructure as a ‘nature-based solution’ for climate change adaptation and sustainable development and develop knowledge on how to use combinations of built water infrastructure (eg. dams, levees, irrigation channels) together with natural infrastructure (eg. wetlands, floodplains, watersheds) for poverty reduction, water-energy-food security, biodiversity conservation, and climate resilience.

Working with nature can optimise the performance and financial benefits of built infrastructure. Built infrastructure should be selected and designed in balance with nature as infrastructure performance depends not just on management practice and operational rules but also on ecosystem services. For example, dams benefit from forests that stabilize soils and hold back erosion upstream. Lakes and wetlands regulate flows and store water, thereby reducing volumes of water that must be stored in built reservoirs and hence cutting the cost of built water storage investments. Well-functioning natural infrastructure is necessary for built infrastructure to perform its functions better, to realise projected benefits and to secure returns on investment.

WISE-UP aims to develop knowledge on how to use mixed portfolios of built water infrastructure and natural infrastructure for poverty reduction, water-energy-food security, biodiversity conservation, and climate resilience. WISE-UP aims to demonstrate the advantages of using dialogue with decision-makers and stakeholders to identify water system tradeoffs and balance investment decisions in order to meet multiple societal goals.

Using the Tana and Volta as demonstration basins, the implementing partnership of WISE-UP brings together a multidisciplinary team of expertise. Its structure is highly interlinked – progress and outputs rely on collaboration between partners.

Under the ecosystem infrastructure investment analysis, IWMI
is exploring the eco-hydrological functions of built and natural infrastructure in the context of climate adaptation through a range of techniques, including modelling, ecosystem service mapping and the development of “benefit functions” linked to hydrological functions. BC3’s economic valuation work will assign monetary value to different system impacts and natural infrastructure investments. This information will facilitate analysis of the economic costs and benefits associated with infrastructure, management and climate shifts. The University of Manchester’s river basin impact modelling and trade-off analysis integrates IWMI and BC3’s outputs to generate the set of best available (i.e. most efficient and robust) combined built and natural infrastructure investment options for an uncertain future. Each combination of built and natural infrastructure provides a different balance of benefits which is then represented graphically for stakeholders to discuss.

Future land use changes, population growth, irrigation expansion, planned infrastructure, and urban-rural demographic shifts to 2050 will be taken into account in this work. The political economy research on decision logics and political drivers, complements the ecosystem infrastructure investment analysis by bringing a deeper understanding of why and how basin stakeholders make the investments decisions they do. This analysis allows the project to target the correct institutions and stakeholders (including brokers of information and networks of influence) that are key to more effective application of evidence and influence of change. The basin leads, WRI-CSIR and ACCESS, work alongside the other partners to help “ground truth” the research. They develop in-country skills and capacities for sharing results, aiming to strengthen understanding and ownership of data and tools under WISE-UP.

The Action Learning process, led by IUCN, engages basin stakeholders directly from the start putting them in the driver’s seat to actively guide project research and direction. The process is designed to operate at the interface between the development of new scientific evidence and the identification of the political dynamics and economic drivers shaping decision-making and policy. This is critical to better understand how to make information and innovative tools practical, useful and trusted – how to take science into policy circles and decision-making processes. It helps us shape the future stages of research and field work, and allows WISE-UP to continually evaluate the relevance of its work.

Key Concepts

WISE-UP will provide solutions/options for integrating built and natural water infrastructure for adaptation in the Tana and Volta river basins. Through improving existing knowledge and tools for planning and decision-making in infrastructure investments in these basins, the project will deliver not only a decision-support tool but options for adaptation strategies.

Outcomes & Lessons Learned

The project is halfway through implementation and so lessons are at the early stage at present. So far the key lessons learned include:

  • It is challenging working in a multi-disciplinary team. Face-to-face communication is key in overcoming this, with regular technical meetings critical to successfully navigating the critical path.
  • Through our action learning process we have noted that it has taken time for stakeholders to make the linkages between climate change impacts and changes in the basin and infrastructure planning. Therefore making the linkages between natural infrastructure and climate change adaptation can be challenging and demands particular attention to bring the discussions back to adaptation.
  • In data poor countries, improving the knowledge base can be challenging. In addition, where data does exist it can be contested by different stakeholder groups. Since WISE-UP includes actors from the very beginning of the project through the action learning process, the teams are able to regularly check in with key basin stakeholders on data validity and their response to research results using specific data sets. This participatory and transparent approach helps to build trust in and understanding of the data and results used.
  • Initial learning from the Action Learning process in the Tana Basin has shown us that there is a distinction between our two reference groups – the decision-makers and the stakeholders (the influencers) in that the former sees benefits from the basin and the latter benefits to and within the basin. Decision-makers focused very much on harnessing benefits from the basin, and less was discussed on benefits to and within the basin. The exception was their focus on reducing upstream and downstream conflicting water uses and the local conflicts that arise due to this. Conversely, the stakeholders were more focused on creating benefits within and to the basin. This clear delineation between the two groups, based on their institution ‘types’ was not unsurprising. However, given the importance of the Tana Basin nationally, its coverage across a third of the country, national security concerns within the basin and its northern border, and the reliance of Nairobi on water supply from the river, the two groups have plenty of connecting issues.


Natural infrastructure, adaptation strategies


Ghana and Burkina Faso (combined covering 85% of the Volta River Basin), Kenya (Tana River Basin)


Key national level decision-makers (i.e. government ministries of water, energy, irrigation, financing, etc.), river basin authorities, (e.g. Volta Basin Authority (VBA), Tana-Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA)), universities, NGOs, civil society representatives, private sector (e.g. KENGEN energy supplier), water resources managers and engineers.

About the Knowledge Platform

The Knowledge Platform is designed to promote and showcase an emerging set of approaches to water resources management that address climate change and other uncertainties -- increasing the use of "bottom-up approaches" through building capacity towards implementation, informing relevant parties, engaging in discussion, and creating new networks. This is an ongoing project of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) funded by the World Bank Group.

Contact AGWA

Alliance for Global Water Adaptation
7640 NW Hoodview Cir.
Corvallis, Oregon 97330