Facing water management challenges with an interdisciplinary, international approach

In 2020, the University of Waterloo (Canada) and the University of Bordeaux celebrate 10 years of collaboration. The partnership, which focuses on projects in the fields of functional materials for energy, nanoscience, artificial intelligence, health and environment, has steadily strengthened over the past decade.

  • 10/02/2020

© Rute Pinto © Rute Pinto

Shared expertise in water

One of the key areas of shared expertise between our universities is water, and since 2014, a series of joint workshops has been organized on the topic. In 2018, two writers’ workshops, one in Waterloo and one in Bordeaux, united researchers from the different scientific disciplines of environmental and earth sciences and economics. Entitled “Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Watershed and Coastal Zone Management”, these workshops helped prepare the writing of a 3 year project proposal within the framework of a Strategic Partnership Grant for Projects in the area of Environment and Agriculture financed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

The resulting project, “Payments for Wetland Ecosystem Services as a Nature-Based Solution to Sustainably Manage Urbanized Watersheds”, was accepted in the summer of 2019 and brings together once again the Principal Investigators of the writers’ workshops: Prof. Roy Brouwer (Executive Director of the Water Institute and Professor of Economics - Water Institute, University of Waterloo) and Prof. Jean-Christophe Pereau (Professor of Economics - LabEx COTE, GREThA, University of Bordeaux).

The study of wetland ecosystems

Starting end 2019, this 3-year, innovative, interdisciplinary project studies a topic that, despite growing awareness of environmental challenges, is lacking in analysis. It concerns the design and evaluation of new payment schemes for the provision of wetland ecosystem services as a cost-effective and economically efficient nature-based solution for the sustainable management of freshwater coastal watersheds.

Why is this topic of such importance? Wetlands are highly productive and valuable ecosystems that are under serious threat worldwide. Not only do they provide valuable goods, but they also represent important hydro-ecological services that support and protect human activities and properties indirectly, such as flood control, nutrient removal and groundwater recharge. These ecosystem services (ES) are increasingly of interest to policy makers because they are nature-based solutions to large water management challenges that are typically provided free of charge.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding of the value of wetland services, their conservation has been largely neglected. As many of the ES are found on private land and have high opportunity costs (in terms of benefits coming from profitable urban and agricultural development), the potential for private incentives to sustainably manage wetland ES is limited. Markets for such services, based on the concept of payments for ecosystem services (PES), do not exist in Canada and France. As a result, wetland ES are undervalued in decisions regarding the conversion of privately owned wetlands to other more profitable land uses. These ES therefore require accurate and meaningful valuation in order to be able to calculate the costs and benefits of their conservation.

The conservation of wetland areas requires a negotiated agreement between the providers of the wetland ecosystem services and the beneficiaries of these services, under the umbrella of the watershed manager.

Prof. Jean-Christophe Pereau —

Prof. Pereau completes, “Analyzing and understanding the strategies of each of these actors is one of the main objectives of this project”.

An interdisciplinary project with a focus on useful outcomes

Working alongside a research organization, a charitable organization and a private business, the Universities of Waterloo and Bordeaux will carry out case studies in coastal watersheds in Southern Ontario (Canada) and Bordeaux (France). The interdisciplinary team, comprised of economists, hydro-ecologists, local policymakers, stakeholders and end-users*, will focus on five objectives:

  • Identify the ES currently provided by the wetlands found in the watersheds of each study area.
  • Determine the economic value of these ES.
  • Determine the cost-effectiveness of wetlands as a nature-based solution in providing the ES.
  • Ascertain how the protection/restoration of wetlands might be incentivized based on PES.
  • Identify the optimal cost-sharing arrangements for the conservation or restoration of wetlands.

During the three years of the project, six academic papers are planned and will focus on topics such as: a cost-effectiveness analysis of wetlands as a nature-based solution in Canadian and French watersheds, public choice experiment results in Canadian and French watersheds, and the transferability of non-market values for wetland ecosystem services across Canadian and French watersheds.

Benefits for the society and the environment

The research carried out by the interdisciplinary team will be beneficial on many levels. It will not only significantly enhance our scientific understanding of the role wetlands can play as a nature-based solution, but it will also increase the empirical evidence base in Canada and France of the cost-effectiveness of wetlands in watersheds as a nature-based solution and the role of market-based instruments, like Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), in natural resources management.

The project format (co-creation of knowledge, models and information) will ensure that research is highly applicable for end-users with outcomes that are meaningful and useful for direct implementation in policy and decision-making. Looking ahead, the implementation of more cost-effective and sustainable nature-based solutions integrating land and water management should benefit society-at-large in the long-term through significant cost savings (including flood damage costs) and more durable solutions.


University of Waterloo (R. Brouwer, A.D. Nimubona, R. Pinto), University of Bordeaux (J.C. Pereau): INRAE (L. Carassou, T. Rambonilaza), Grand River Conservation Authority, Suez Eau.