Nature-based solutions (NbS) are globally implemented to address a wide variety of water management challenges. While extensive research on NbS has been conducted in the Global North, developing countries have received less attention. There is a lack of information about the NbS that can be applied in the Andean region and their potential to address water challenges and provide ecosystem services. This article aims to bridge this gap by performing a review of the emerging literature on NbS in the context of Andean countries. A comprehensive analysis of 38 publications was conducted, with a focus on strategies for addressing water-related challenges. Our findings reveal that there has been an increase in NbS publications in the Andean region in recent years. A higher prevalence of empirical studies was observed in gray literature. In addition, we identified 26 potential NbS, including ancestral practices, to address water challenges. The main challenges that Andean countries seek to solve through these NbS are water scarcity, flood risks, and water quality. This research highlights the significance of assessing the efficiency of NbS initiatives and disseminating this knowledge to discover more opportunities for implementation in the Andean region.

  • Implementation of nature-based solutions (NbS) is scarcely documented in the Andean region.

  • A review of literature was carried out to identify NbS, water challenges, and ecosystem services.

  • A list of 26 potential NbS for addressing water challenges was identified, including ancestral practices such as Amunas, Qochas, and Albarradas.

  • In the Andean cities, the most commonly used NbS are green streets, SUDS, and rain gardens.

Water resources worldwide are under threat due to climate change and pressure from human activities (Ochoa-Tocachi et al. 2019). In particular, the depletion and degradation of water resources is expected to affect significantly human and environmental health (Oral et al. 2020). The influence of climate change on water resources is particularly evident in regions such as the Mediterranean basin, Southwestern United States, Southern Africa, and Latin America (El Moll 2023). The Andean region1 in South America is characterized by diverse ecosystems and water resources which are currently facing a multitude of environmental threats, including seasonal change, floods, landslides, and droughts. It is projected that these risks will intensify in both magnitude and frequency due to climate change (Castellanos et al. 2023). The effects of seasonal change pose a threat to the water availability in Ecuador, the páramos in Colombia, the high mountains in Peru, and the Bolivian Altiplano. This has an impact on water consumption and agriculture (Morales 2022). In addition to the effects of climate change, water management is a critical issue. While the region has significant freshwater reserves, the water distribution is problematic, especially considering the strong seasonality of water in the highlands between Ecuador and Bolivia (Drenkhan & Castro-Salvador 2023). For instance, it is estimated that only 75% of the rural population has access to safe water sources and only 50% of this part of the population has access to basic sanitation (Drenkhan & Castro-Salvador 2023). The vulnerability of the region is exacerbated by several factors such as poverty, social conflicts related to environmental issues, and limited adaptive capacity (Dupuits et al. 2022).

In this context, the concept of NbS is particularly relevant. Implementing NbS can improve water security for cities by increasing water supply and reducing the risk of floods (Vega Sánchez & Mejía 2023). This is accomplished by delivering ecosystem services that improve both the quantity and quality of water as well as increasing resilience to climate change (United Nations Environment Programme et al. 2018). Previous studies have documented the application of NbS for water management in various regions. For instance, the European Union (EU) actively supports NbS research for water management through programs such as Horizon 2020 and HORIZON Europe (Bona et al. 2022). This has contributed to an explosion of research literature on the topic, coupled with a rising interest in circular cities and NbS for water management in particular (United Nations Environment Programme et al. 2018; Oral et al. 2020; Cross et al. 2021; Tsatsou et al. 2023). In turn, since 2018, NbS have been gradually incorporated into urban planning in Latin American cities, with a clear acceleration from 2022 onwards. For instance, over the last decade, several Andean countries have implemented substantial changes in their water management systems to be more participatory, decentralized, and adaptive (Castellanos et al. 2023). Projects such as CLEVER Cities, INTERACTBio, INTERLACE, CONNEXUS, ENSLAC, Nature4Cities, CityAdapt, and Biodivercities (BiodiverCities) are leading the way by creating new local knowledge and developing technical or governance solutions tailored to the unique contexts of the region. In addition, they disseminate information to municipalities and stakeholders involved in planning, while also creating instances of practical application (Horn et al. 2023).

Despite these efforts, Latin American cities are still facing significant barriers in expanding NbS, especially given the path dependency of implementing gray infrastructure. Additionally, technical capacity is often limited and there is a scarcity of local experts who can effectively combine the urban and environmental aspects (Horn et al. 2023). In Latin America, efforts have been made to inform about NbS projects and their current state of implementation (Ozment et al. 2021). Moreover, an emerging research body has been focused on ancestral practices that are considered traditional NbS (see, for instance, Cassin & Ochoa-Tocachi 2021). However, in the Andean context, there is still a lack of knowledge regarding alternative water management techniques that can be incorporated into spatial planning. Adaptation to changing water availability is a priority, but concrete experiences in this sense remain insufficiently researched. Motivated by the need to fill this gap, the aim of this work is to document the current state of NbS used to address water-related challenges in the Andean region. Also, we aim to identify typologies, analyze natural interventions to tackle specific challenges, and highlight potential ecosystem services. For this purpose, we performed a systematic literature review in scientific databases and gray literature to identify research on the use of NbS to address water challenges. Recognizing the NbS as a key element in achieving the Andean sustainability goals, this paper addresses the following research questions: (1) What is the current state of NbS research in the Andean region? (2) What are the main NbS initiatives and practices being applied in this region to address water-related challenges? (3) What are their potential ecosystem services? The results of this article provide useful insights for decision-makers, urban planners, and researchers as they constitute a guideline to plan and implement NbS outside the European context. The review will also highlight gaps and constraints in NbS practices and offer suggestions for potential future research.

A systematic review was carried out to identify and analyze prior research on the use of NbS in water management across four Andean countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Andean Community is made up of these nations, connected by a shared history, a wide range of cultures and nature, and shared goals. We first summarized the current state of knowledge on NbS research and identified NbS for water management in the Andean region through a literature search. Subsequently, we analyzed the water challenges that can be addressed with the implementation of NbS. Finally, we identified the ecosystem services provided by the NbS.

Literature search

We conducted a systematic literature review following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis (PRISMA) method developed by Moher et al. (2016), as described in Figure 1. A comprehensive search of academic databases was carried out to find publications in both English and Spanish, covering the period from 2010 to 2023. Our analysis focused on journal articles related to NbS in the four Andean countries. In the review, we incorporated both ‘empirical studies’ and ‘NbS simulations’, the latter referring to contexts that have not been studied empirically. Our review included the following NbS categories: restorative, issue-specific, infrastructure, management, and protection (Cohen-Shacham et al. 2019), without being limited to studies that explicitly use NbS terminology. In this sense, we also incorporated technologies that either work with nature or simulate natural processes, and these may not necessarily require the presence of the green factor.2 In relation to the requirements for eligibility, all articles providing relevant information about NbS for water management in Andean countries were included in the analysis. Information was accepted indifferently from any institution (for example, research institutions, local organizations) at all scales (micro, meso, and macro) from diverse environments or contexts (urban, peri-urban, or rural) and during each stage of development (planning, implementation, or monitoring).
Figure 1

Literature review method flow diagram, following PRISMA.

Figure 1

Literature review method flow diagram, following PRISMA.

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The search was conducted on the Web of Science database (accessed on 20 August 2023) and Google Scholar (accessed on 04 October 2023). We used a combination of the following keywords: (‘Nature-Based Solutions’ OR ‘ecosystem-based approaches’ OR ‘natural infrastructure’ OR ‘natural interventions’ OR ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’ OR ‘green infrastructure’) AND (‘Latin American Cities’ OR ‘Latin America’ OR ‘Andes’ OR ‘South America’ OR ‘Colombia’ OR ‘Ecuador’ OR ‘Perú’ OR ‘Bolivia’) AND (‘water management’ OR ‘water’).

Despite initially focusing on journal articles, we expanded our literature search to ‘gray literature’. For this we searched in different databases from public and private institutions, specialist organizations and repositories of universities in the Andean region (CONDESAN, Regional Solutions Catalogue CLEVER CITIES, CAF Development Bank of Latin America, and the Caribbean). The goal was to gather all relevant data on the review topic. We include research and technical reports, manuals or guides, conference proceedings government documents and master's or doctoral theses, to identify all available data related to the review topic. The above-mentioned search criteria were adapted for the gray literature, given the limited search capabilities of certain databases. The gray literature review was conducted between October 11 and October 18, 2023.

The PRISMA flow diagram (Figure 1) illustrates the number of studies that were identified, screened, selected, and included in the analysis. We identified 651 potentially relevant studies: 97% were journal articles, and 3% were gray literature. We performed a first round of screening based on a review of titles and abstracts to select the publications most related to our goals. Initially, 89 abstracts were identified that met the inclusion criteria mentioned above. These studies investigated some type of natural intervention to address water-related challenges in an Andean country. Of the 65 studies selected for a full-text review, we discarded 24 because they did not belong to one of the four selected countries. Finally, a total of 38 studies were included in this review.

Database construction

The information was compiled and consolidated to present a comprehensive overview of NbS for water management in the Andean region. This endeavor was facilitated by the creation of an Excel datasheet, which included the following elements: research title, location and country, publication date, objectives, ecosystem-based approach, NbS type, spatial scale of NbS implementation, main water challenge addressed, secondary challenges addressed, ecosystem services, ecological benefits, and socioeconomic benefits. Then, the qualitative data was synthesized and refined. Detailed information on each study is presented in Supplementary Table S1.

Data analysis

The evidence base was characterized through descriptive statistics, mapping the number of studies with respect to geographic region, NbS type, water challenge addressed, spatial scale, and ecosystem services. Given the diversity of terminologies used in the studies to refer to NbS, a comprehensive common list was established. For example, if one study referred to a solution as ‘Restoration and protection’ and another as ‘Revegetation’, these terms were merged into a unified category labeled ‘Forest protection and reforestation’. This harmonization process aimed to create a consistent and inclusive list of NbS. To facilitate the development of this common NbS list, we consulted previous classifications and catalogs of NbS (Castellar et al. 2021; Ozment et al. 2021). The names of the natural interventions found in Spanish were translated into English, except for those practices that are unique to the Andean region and cannot be translated.

We assessed the applicability of NbS in addressing three of the challenges identified by Raymond et al. (2017), as a starting point: (1) water quality, (2) water scarcity, and (3) flood risk. Additionally, we conducted a general analysis to determine if the studies referenced social challenges that are addressed by NbS. To differentiate the spatial scale of NbS study, we established four scenarios: (1) site, building; (2) district, neighborhood, community; (3) municipality, metropolitan, regional; and (4) basin level, national. Next, we focused on empirical studies that have been evaluated for their effectiveness in addressing water-related challenges or that are currently under monitoring. Then, we examined the connections between NbS and the ecosystem services they provide, along with their environmental and socioeconomic benefits. Ecosystem services were classified as provisioning, regulating, cultural, or supporting.

Current state of NbS investigation in the Andean region

Most studies were journal articles (61%), followed by gray literature (39%). The empirical studies are mostly found in the gray literature, which constituted the majority with 14 cases, while the scientific database had eight. The search also revealed a set of ‘NbS simulations’ (i.e. digital modeling of NbS) and in this case, the scientific database leads with 15 cases, while the gray literature search yielded only one case. This scarcity of scientific studies could also be attributed to the lack of a universal definition and a guidance framework for implementation (see Reed et al. 2017). The distribution of publications on NbS in the countries of the Andean region was variegated. Peru and Ecuador had the largest amount of research and publications on NbS for water management, accounting for 45 and 31%, respectively (Figure 2). Colombia and Bolivia had a lower representation, while all countries in the region were covered by one publication (3%). Peru and Ecuador are also the countries with the highest number of empirical studies (nine and eight, respectively). This finding could be explained by the establishment of various Water Funds, which support the implementation of NbS projects. Since 2014, Peru and Colombia have introduced laws related to conservation and payment for ecosystem services. This legislation requires water service providers to invest a percentage of their income in NbS (Ozment et al. 2021). In Ecuador, the Water Protection Fund (FONAG) works to ensure an adequate supply of water by supporting actions aimed at protecting water resources.
Figure 2

Distribution of studies in the Andean region.

Figure 2

Distribution of studies in the Andean region.

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The examination of publications on NbS from 2010 to 2023 shows a rise in research in this field beginning in 2017 (Figure 3). A notable peak occurred in 2022 with 12 publications. This increase in publications indicates a growing interest and focus on NbS, aiming to assist local communities in dealing with climate change and other environmental issues. Studies under the label of NbS have been presented since 2020. In previous years, information on this topic was tracked using different terms related to NbS such as Green Infrastructure (GI), Natural Infrastructure (NI), Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), Water Sowing and Harvesting (WS&H), Ecological Engineering (EE), and Ecological Restoration (ER). We suggest adding WS&H as a category in ecosystem-based approaches under NbS, following the analysis by Cohen-Shacham et al. (2019).
Figure 3

Number of studies by year of publication. Note that the literature review did not cover the entirety of 2023, as data collection concluded in October 2023.

Figure 3

Number of studies by year of publication. Note that the literature review did not cover the entirety of 2023, as data collection concluded in October 2023.

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According to Cassin & Ochoa-Tocachi (2021), the method of water sowing and harvesting relies on natural infiltration and storage processes in soils and aquifers to ensure the availability of water when needed. All the NbS-related terms and ecosystem approaches can be seen in Supplementary Table S2. In the 38 analyzed studies, we identified a total of 58 natural interventions carried out in the four countries that constitute the scope of our research. It should be noted that many of these 58 interventions correspond to the same NbS terminology, which is analyzed in Section 3.2. Out of all studies, 10 references more than one natural intervention.

NbS applied in Andean region: toward a common terminology

Out of the 58 natural interventions, only 26 were selected for further analysis after identifying common practices and similar terminology. Table 1 displays the different names given to similar natural interventions and the definitive name assigned to each NbS. For NbS 1, which is ‘Agroforestry and Silvopasture’, interventions that involved agroforestry were included. This means incorporating trees in conjunction with pastures and/or crops. Ozment et al. (2021) already proposed this NbS as a solution for water quality and quantity issues as well as river flooding. As for NbS 2, 4, 16, and 20, their selected names are commonly used in the publications analyzed: ‘Amunas’, ‘Albarradas’, ‘Qochas’, and ‘Tapes’, respectively. These NbS are not found in global NbS classifications since they are specific practices of Andean communities under the WS&H approach. However, they were considered in this study because they are seen as an ancient NbS according to Cassin & Ochoa-Tocachi (2021). Some of these ancestral practices have also been employed in Spain, including the use of ‘careo channels’, which fulfill a similar purpose as the ‘Amunas’ (Jódar et al. 2022). The ‘Camellones’ or also known as ‘Inka-wacho’ or ‘Waru-waru’ (NbS 6) were also included due to references in literature qualifying these practices as NbS (Carrión-Mero et al. 2023).

Table 1

NbS common terminology found in the studies

NbSNbS terminology
definitive nameName 1Name 2Name 3Name 4Name 5Name 6
NbS 1 Agroforestry and Silvopasture Agroforestry Agroforestry systems Silvopastoral systems    
NbS 2 Amunas Amunas Careo recharge system Mamanteo    
NbS 3 Bofedal conservation and restoration Artificial bofedal wetland Bofedales u ‘oconales’     
NbS 4 Albarradas Artificial wetlands (albarradas o qochas) Hill dam     
NbS 5 BioSand water filter BioSand water filter      
NbS 6 Camellones Camellones, Inka-wacho, Waru-Waru      
NbS 7 Constructed wetlands Constructed wetlands Shallow unit process open water wetlands Subsurface horizontal wetland Artificial floating islands   
NbS 8 Drainage ditches Drainage ditches      
NbS 9 Ecological on-site sanitation system Ecological on-site sanitation system Lombrifilters     
NbS 10 Forest protection and reforestation Ecological restoration and conservation Forest protection and reforestation Forestation Reforestation, revegetation Restoration and protection Secondary forest 
NbS 11 Flow dissipaters Flow dissipaters      
NbS 12 Fog-catcher collector Fog-catcher collector      
NbS 13 Green corridor Green corridor      
NbS 14 Green roofs Green roofs      
NbS 15 Green streets Green streets      
NbS 16 Qochas Qochas Qochas, albarradas, atajados, Jagüeyes, or pataquis Rainwater harvesting Water reservoir   
NbS 17 Rain barrels Rain barrels      
NbS 18 Rain gardens Rain gardens      
NbS 19 Soil and water conservation measures Soil and water conservation measures      
NbS 20 Tapes Stream dams (tapes or tajamares)      
NbS 21 SUDS SUDS      
NbS 22 Tree pits Tree pits      
NbS 23 Urban orchard Urban orchard      
NbS 24 Wastewater treatment ponds Wastewater treatment ponds      
NbS 25 Riverbank engineering Water rounds/Water circuits      
NbS 26 Wetland conservation Wetland Wetland conservation     
NbSNbS terminology
definitive nameName 1Name 2Name 3Name 4Name 5Name 6
NbS 1 Agroforestry and Silvopasture Agroforestry Agroforestry systems Silvopastoral systems    
NbS 2 Amunas Amunas Careo recharge system Mamanteo    
NbS 3 Bofedal conservation and restoration Artificial bofedal wetland Bofedales u ‘oconales’     
NbS 4 Albarradas Artificial wetlands (albarradas o qochas) Hill dam     
NbS 5 BioSand water filter BioSand water filter      
NbS 6 Camellones Camellones, Inka-wacho, Waru-Waru      
NbS 7 Constructed wetlands Constructed wetlands Shallow unit process open water wetlands Subsurface horizontal wetland Artificial floating islands   
NbS 8 Drainage ditches Drainage ditches      
NbS 9 Ecological on-site sanitation system Ecological on-site sanitation system Lombrifilters     
NbS 10 Forest protection and reforestation Ecological restoration and conservation Forest protection and reforestation Forestation Reforestation, revegetation Restoration and protection Secondary forest 
NbS 11 Flow dissipaters Flow dissipaters      
NbS 12 Fog-catcher collector Fog-catcher collector      
NbS 13 Green corridor Green corridor      
NbS 14 Green roofs Green roofs      
NbS 15 Green streets Green streets      
NbS 16 Qochas Qochas Qochas, albarradas, atajados, Jagüeyes, or pataquis Rainwater harvesting Water reservoir   
NbS 17 Rain barrels Rain barrels      
NbS 18 Rain gardens Rain gardens      
NbS 19 Soil and water conservation measures Soil and water conservation measures      
NbS 20 Tapes Stream dams (tapes or tajamares)      
NbS 21 SUDS SUDS      
NbS 22 Tree pits Tree pits      
NbS 23 Urban orchard Urban orchard      
NbS 24 Wastewater treatment ponds Wastewater treatment ponds      
NbS 25 Riverbank engineering Water rounds/Water circuits      
NbS 26 Wetland conservation Wetland Wetland conservation     

The management practices of natural wetlands in the high Andean zones are referred to as NbS 3, also known as ‘Bofedal conservation and restoration’. While there is an artificial intervention called ‘Artificial bofedal’, it is considered a conservation practice as it extends natural bofedales. It is important to note that NbS 3 is distinct from NbS 26, which focuses on the conservation of other types of natural ecosystems such as páramos or meanders, rather than bofedales.

The name of NbS 7, ‘Constructed wetlands’, was chosen because it is the most frequently used in scientific literature (Rodriguez-Dominguez et al. 2020) and includes other categories like ‘Subsurface horizontal wetland’ or ‘Artificial floating islands’ mentioned in this research. As for NbS 10, the name selected, ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, encompasses other measures identified in this study that aim to restore forests for water regulation.

We also identified the ‘Fog-catcher collector’ (NbS 12) and the ‘Rain barrels’ (NbS 17) through the Water Harvesting and Blue Infrastructure approach. Although these two methods do not directly rely on natural resources, their purpose of gathering and storing water qualifies them as NbS for combating water scarcity. In fact, there are publications in the Andean region where these techniques are already referred to as NbS (Quichimbo-Miguitama et al. 2022), particularly when they utilize natural materials and traditional knowledge in their construction (Carrera-Villacrés et al. 2023). The ‘Water rounds’, which are strips of vegetation that provide protection next to water streams, are seen as resembling the NbS suggested by Castellar et al. (2021) called ‘Riverbank engineering’. This approach incorporates techniques from fluvial bioengineering to protect riverbanks and hillsides. Therefore, we have named NbS 25 as ‘Riverbank engineering’, which also encompasses safeguarding riverbanks in flat areas.

Finally, although ‘Land acquisition’ was found as NbS in the work of Álvarez-Villa et al. (2023), we believe that it should not be considered as such, and we removed it from the list. Land acquisition can have broader objectives but does not necessarily involve an integrated approach in managing ecosystems and natural processes. The NbS that are left refer to interventions that are widely recognized and known globally. As observed, most of the terminology used for NbS in the Andean region (77%) corresponds to interventions previously mentioned in publications or catalogs, predominantly from Europe (e.g. Castellar et al. 2021). The remaining 23% consists of new terms, specific to the Andean region, which are linked to ancestral practices that are still in use. These new NbS exhibit characteristics that justify their denomination, as they align with the principles established by the IUCN Global Standard (IUCN 2020). These solutions prioritize nature conservation, generate positive social outcomes, protect biodiversity, and incorporate traditional and local knowledge. Please find the table containing the names of all the NbS and the frequency of their occurrence in this study in Supplementary Table S3.

The analysis of the studies conducted reveals a significant variation among the different categories of NbS, as shown in Figure 4. The NbS ‘Forest protection and reforestation’ and ‘Qochas’ have the highest number of studies, with nine and five, respectively. They are followed by ‘Agroforestry’, ‘Amunas’, ‘Constructed wetlands’, and ‘SUDS’, each with four identified studies. On the other hand, NbS such as ‘Green roofs’ and ‘Rain gardens’ have a relatively smaller number of studies. The findings suggest that certain NbS have been studied more than others, which could indicate priority areas of focus in environmental research. Contrary to these findings, in Europe, the most representative NbS are ‘urban parks and forests’ and ‘green areas for water management’ (Bona et al. 2022). These NbS have been less studied in the Andean region. This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that most European publications focus on the urban environment. In this context, certain NbS such as green roofs, green streets, or rain gardens stand out, while less attention is paid to other natural interventions that are being implemented in rural or peri-urban areas.
Figure 4

Distribution of NbS according to the number of studies found in this work.

Figure 4

Distribution of NbS according to the number of studies found in this work.

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Water challenges addressed through NbS in the Andean region

The research conducted by Tellman et al. (2018) in Latin America assessed the hydrological advantages of NbS in cities across the region. The study found that the greatest potential for improvement lies in enhancing water quality, followed by mitigating stormwater floods and reducing riverine flood risks. However, our observations indicate that Andean cities primarily aim to address challenges associated with water scarcity (25%) through NbS. This is followed by addressing flood risks (19%) and improving water quality (16%). Furthermore, it was observed that 12% of NbS studies in the Andean region refer to water security, identifying it as another water challenge.

This is attributed to the fact that water security encompasses additional aspects beyond water quality and scarcity, such as equity in access to water and sustainable water resource management, among others. Water security is a significant issue in the Andean region, particularly in rural areas. To tackle this problem, NbS related to soil and water management practices, like ‘Agroforestry and Silvopasture’, ‘Amunas’, and ‘Bofedal conservation and restoration’, are being implemented.

Soil erosion is also considered a water-related challenge in the Andean region. This problem frequently arises in numerous Andean cities situated on steep slopes, primarily attributed to intense precipitation events, a consequence of climate change. Issues pertaining to soil erosion were less frequently discussed in the analyzed studies, accounting for only 7% of NbS publications. Although other NbS may not specifically target water challenges, they could still have an impact. For instance, ‘Green Corridors’ primarily focuses on managing green spaces but could potentially affect flood risk. It was discovered in studies with more than two NbS that the issue being discussed was described in a general manner, rather than specifically for each NbS. All the NbS and the water-related challenges that each one addresses can be observed in Table 2.

Table 2

Water-related challenges addressed by NbS

 
 

Note: Dark blue indicates that the NbS is addressing the challenge, light blue signifies that the NbS has a potential impact on the challenge, and white denotes that the NbS is not used to address the challenge.

Although the Andean region contains considerable freshwater reserves, these do not reflect the water distribution in the region, given the strong seasonality of water in the highlands between Ecuador and Bolivia (Drenkhan & Castro-Salvador 2023). Therefore, water scarcity is a critical challenge in certain localities. Climate changes and land use, along with socioeconomic factors, have led to increasing scarcity (Murtinho et al. 2013). Water quality is also a critical challenge. Several studies highlight the pollution of water bodies from multiple sectors of use: domestic, industrial, mining, and agriculture. In this context, the use of NbS can improve water security by increasing water availability and quality, reducing water-related risks, and generating additional social, economic, and environmental benefits.

In other regions, such as Europe, the challenges are similar in terms of climate change adaptation and improving risk management and resilience, such as flood risks (Bona et al. 2022). In Europe, water quality may not be perceived as a challenge as important as in the Andean region. This may be due to differences in climatic, geographic, and socioeconomic conditions. For example, Europe has significantly invested in infrastructure, including wastewater treatment. Moreover, unlike the Andean region, the European Union has strict regulations to protect water quality (Water Framework Directive). Despite the efforts, the effectiveness of NbS in addressing water challenges has not been evaluated in most of the studies analyzed in the Andean region. This lack of evaluation is a major obstacle in Latin American countries, where projects are not adequately monitored or followed up on.

This study provides an initial exploration of the water-related challenges that NbS aim to tackle in the Andean region. Among the studies that utilized NbS such as ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, ‘Rain gardens’, and ‘SUDS’, only these aimed to tackle social challenges including public participation, social cohesion, economic opportunities, and public health. Supplementary Table S4 provides a comprehensive overview of all challenges, including social ones.

NbS scales and ecosystem services

The analysis shows that NbS implemented at the basin level account for 40% of the total sample, followed by neighborhood and community at 18 and 14%, respectively. NbS implemented at the basin scale are mainly in a rural context, representing 42% of all interventions. Among the three main types of NbS implemented in rural areas, ‘Forest protection and reforestation’ is the most widely adopted, followed closely by ‘Amunas’ and ‘Qochas’. The NbS studied in urban areas represent another 42%, where green infrastructure approaches such as ‘Green streets’, ‘Green corridor’, ‘Rain garden’, and ‘SUDS’ predominate. NbS in urban contexts are usually found at the neighborhood scale associated with urban planning competencies. In addition, 9% of the NbS were implemented in a peri-urban context. The remaining percentage refers to the NbS that were analyzed across multiple contexts simultaneously (please see Supplementary Figure S1). This pattern is consistent with observations in Europe, as highlighted by Bona et al. (2022), where the predominant implementation of NbS occurs at the ‘district or neighborhood’ scale within urban spaces. Our findings, illustrated in Figure 5, reveal that three NbS are employed in each of the three contexts: urban, peri-urban, and rural. These include ‘Agroforestry and Silvopasture’, ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, and ‘Qochas’. These NbS are part of the restoration and ecosystem-based adaptation approaches, aligning with previous research by Hale et al. (2023), who assessed NbS in a peri-urban setting across Europe.
Figure 5

Spatial scale of NbS implementation. The highlighted NbS are those that are implemented in all three spatial contexts: urban, peri-urban, and rural.

Figure 5

Spatial scale of NbS implementation. The highlighted NbS are those that are implemented in all three spatial contexts: urban, peri-urban, and rural.

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In this study, we identified 26 NbS that can be used for water management in the Andean region. Out of all the publications we reviewed, only 14 NbS have been evaluated for their effectiveness or are currently being monitored. Therefore, for these NbS, we have information related to ecosystem services (Table 3) and the ecological and socioeconomic benefits provided (see Supplementary Table S5). Our observations show that 68% of the ecosystem services that NbS provide in the Andean region correspond to regulation, followed by provision (16%) and cultural (16%). The pattern aligns with studies conducted in Europe, where the regulation ecosystem services referred to as ‘natural water retention measures’ were found to be the most common (Bona et al. 2022). Ancient NbS such as ‘Albarradas’, ‘Amunas’, and ‘Qochas’ provide ecosystem services within the regulation category, such as water storage and water infiltration.

Table 3

Ecosystem services provided by NbS

NbSCategory of ecosystem servicesEcosystem services
Agroforestry and Silvopasture Regulation Flood control
Water regulation
Carbon sequestration and storage
Air quality regulation
Soil erosion control 
Cultural Urban regeneration 
Albarradas Regulation Water infiltration 
Amunas Regulation Aquifer recharge
Water infiltration 
Bofedal conservation and restoration Regulation Carbon storage
Water regulation 
Provisioning Forage provisioning 
Constructed wetlands Regulation Water purification
Carbon sequestration 
Provisioning Habitat for biodiversity 
Cultural Aesthetic value of the landscape 
Ecological on-site sanitation system Regulation Water purification 
Flow dissipaters Regulation Flood control
Water infiltration
Sediment control 
Fog-catcher collector Provisioning Water supply 
Forest protection and reforestation Regulation Climate regulation
Soil erosion control 
Cultural Urban regeneration 
10 Green corridor Regulation Climate regulation 
11 Qochas Regulation Water storage
Water infiltration 
12 Rain gardens Regulation Flood control
Water infiltration
Water purification 
13 SUDS Regulation Water conveyance
Water retention
Water infiltration 
14 Wastewater treatment ponds (WTPs) Regulation Water purification 
NbSCategory of ecosystem servicesEcosystem services
Agroforestry and Silvopasture Regulation Flood control
Water regulation
Carbon sequestration and storage
Air quality regulation
Soil erosion control 
Cultural Urban regeneration 
Albarradas Regulation Water infiltration 
Amunas Regulation Aquifer recharge
Water infiltration 
Bofedal conservation and restoration Regulation Carbon storage
Water regulation 
Provisioning Forage provisioning 
Constructed wetlands Regulation Water purification
Carbon sequestration 
Provisioning Habitat for biodiversity 
Cultural Aesthetic value of the landscape 
Ecological on-site sanitation system Regulation Water purification 
Flow dissipaters Regulation Flood control
Water infiltration
Sediment control 
Fog-catcher collector Provisioning Water supply 
Forest protection and reforestation Regulation Climate regulation
Soil erosion control 
Cultural Urban regeneration 
10 Green corridor Regulation Climate regulation 
11 Qochas Regulation Water storage
Water infiltration 
12 Rain gardens Regulation Flood control
Water infiltration
Water purification 
13 SUDS Regulation Water conveyance
Water retention
Water infiltration 
14 Wastewater treatment ponds (WTPs) Regulation Water purification 

On the other hand, ‘SUDS’, which are a purely urban NbS, provide regulatory ecosystem services and benefits such as increased biodiversity and contribution to the landscape quality of cities. According to our analysis, cultural ecosystem services such as urban regeneration or aesthetic value are provided only by ‘Agroforestry and Silvopasture’, ‘Constructed wetlands’, and ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, which can be implemented in urban and rural contexts.

Many of the NbS presented in Table 3 have advantages when implemented in tropical zones, such as the Andean region. This region is characterized by its diversity of climates and ecosystems, which allows for plant growth throughout the year and increased microbiological activity (Drenkhan & Castro-Salvador 2023). Due to these conditions, NbS like ‘Constructed wetlands’ may have a greater opportunity for implementation and success in Andean countries compared to other regions, such as Europe. Through the review of various publications, it becomes evident that these actions can address current water challenges such as water scarcity and provide various ecosystem services. Although NbS can be implemented across various contexts and scales, their ability to fully address water challenges is limited. Therefore, it is important to develop coordinated responses at various spatial scales and establish instruments for integrating and implementing NbS (Hale et al. 2023). Furthermore, the incorporation of ancestral practices into NbS catalogs tailored to the Andean context emerges as a relevant and interesting element.

This research presents some limitations. Firstly, the analysis of ecosystem services focused only on empirical studies evaluated in terms of efficiency. This approach may have limited the identification of all ecosystem services and benefits provided by NbS. This study has found that just over half of the NbS have undergone some form of evaluation. Secondly, our approach did not include a specific search for each type of NbS, but a broad analysis of the practices implemented in the Andean region. Therefore, there is likely more information about each NbS identified in this study that could not be captured due to the search criteria employed. Despite these limitations, this research lays a solid foundation for future research. The provided information can be examined in more detail to better understand the ecosystem services and benefits of each identified NbS. Consequently, there is a pressing need for more research and project monitoring to identify opportunities for NbS implementation in the Andean region.

This work carried out a comprehensive literature review, delving into the findings of 38 carefully analyzed studies that incorporate natural interventions for water management in the Andean region. The geographical distribution of the investigations highlights Peru and Ecuador as leaders on NbS research. This can be attributed to the creation of various Water Funds in these countries and the implementation of specific legislation that has catalyzed the adoption of NbS in other regions, such as Europe. Despite a significant increase in research on NbS in the Andean region since 2017, our study found that the implementation of NbS is not widely documented, as evidenced by the limited number of ‘empirical studies’ on scientific platforms. The scarcity of scientifically backed studies could be attributed to the lack of knowledge of the NbS that can be effectively implemented, as well as to the absence of common terminology. The study identified 58 natural interventions which, after detailed analysis of common practices and terminology, were reduced to 26 NbS. The study includes a set of ancestral practices which are considered as NbS since they comply with the principles established by the IUCN to be considered as NbS. In addition, our study suggests the inclusion of WS&H as a new approach under the umbrella of NbS, which covers the majority of the identified ancestral practices.

In relation to the water challenges addressed by NbS in the Andean region, water scarcity (25%), flood risk (19%), and the improvement of water quality (16%) are the main concerns. According to our results, the NbS ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, ‘Qochas’, ‘Agroforestry’, ‘Amunas’, ‘Constructed wetlands’, and ‘SUDS’ are the most used to address the main water challenges. At the urban level, NbS have been mainly applied at the neighborhood scale, while at the rural level, the basin scale is predominant. The NbS ‘Agroforestry and Silvopasture’, ‘Forest protection and reforestation’, and ‘Qochas’ are the most transversal, and have been used across urban, peri-urban, and rural contexts. Although we identified 26 NbS, only 14 have been evaluated in terms of their effectiveness or are currently being monitored. Our findings show that the majority of the ecosystem services provided by the NbS relate to regulation, such as water storage and water infiltration. Unfortunately, cultural ecosystem services are the least reported.

In summary, although the Andean region has experienced an increase in research and application of NbS, greater attention is required to the evaluation of effectiveness, coordination at various scales, and consideration of ancestral wisdom to address water challenges. This study provides a solid foundation for future research and actions that promote the sustainable use of NbS in the Andean region.

Y.C.R.A. acknowledges the support from AGAUR FI predoctoral program grant (2022 FI_B 01010) Joan Oró, from the Secretary of Universities and Research of the Department of Research and Universities of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the European Social Fund. I.R.-R.L. acknowledges the support of project CLEPSIDRA (Ref: TED2021-131862B-I00). L.A.P. acknowledges the support from Juan de la Cierva Formation grant (FJC2021-047857-I) financed by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and European Union ‘NextGenerationEU’/PRTR. The authors would like to thank LEQUIA. LEQUIA has been recognized as ‘consolidated research groups’ (Ref. 2021 SGR01352) by the Catalan Agency of Research and Universities.

1

Andean region is composed of four countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

2

Green factor: Presence of vegetation (Castellar et al. 2021).

All relevant data are included in the paper or its Supplementary Information.

The authors declare there is no conflict.

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Supplementary data