Resilience by design: water funds for multifunctional landscapes

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Resilience.

Since the Green Revolution, we’ve been relying heavily on a strategy to control variability in agricultural systems, as we strive to minimize agricultural nuisances such as soil infertility, pest impacts, and inadequate precipitation through the use of chemicals and irrigation. This has won us some major successes in increasing yields, but at high cost to the many other benefits provided in and by agricultural landscapes.

A Water Producer Program the Guandú Watershed in Rio de Janeiro state compensates landowners who protect and restore the Atlantic Forest on their lands to protect water supplies to the city.  Photo: Adriano Gambarini/TNC A Water Producer Program the Guandú Watershed in Rio de Janeiro state compensates landowners who protect and restore the Atlantic Forest on their lands. Photo: Adriano Gambarini/TNC

In their seminal work on building resilience, controlling variability was one of three alternative strategies that Gunderson and Holling identified for coping with variability, in anything from natural ecosystems to social systems like financial markets:

  1. living passively with it by adapting to it;
  2. controlling it by minimizing its influences; and
  3. anticipating, creating, or manipulating variability.

After struggling with the first two of these strategies in agriculture for decades or millennia, it’s time to give the third some serious consideration: embracing variability by building it into our landscapes.

Humans have been incorporating adaptation to variability into agricultural systems since their inception through domestication that has allowed us to prosper in a range of environments, from drought-prone regions to flooded river deltas. However, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to match the pace of genetic change to the pace of change in the environment as climate change, invasive species, and other human-caused stressors intensify.

I argue in a forthcoming book on agricultural resilience edited by Sarah Gardner, Stephen Ramsden, and Rosemary Hails, that the final strategy, embracing variability, is our most essential in forming a resilient food system going forward: creating variability through the establishment of multi-functional agricultural landscapes.

These heterogeneous mosaics of farm and nature involve a wide range of human and natural inputs, and producing a diverse set of tangible and intangible benefits, each with a slightly different response to change. Designing agricultural systems that co-produce multiple benefits (like freshwater and coastal fisheries, wild fruits and game, fuelwood and timber, water regulation, and other culturally meaningful activities), rather than maximize one (like food provision from a single commodity) at the expense of others, enhances resilience by increasing the diversity of ecological processes that maintain a regime in the face of disturbance.

Guiding agricultural water investments through spatial targeting

Acknowledging the connection between resilience and ecosystem services makes it critical to think spatially, not just temporally. Where agriculture is located in a landscape – and how and where specific practices are employed – can have an enormous effect on the total set of services produced and how equitably they are delivered.

For example, stream buffers and low tillage regimes may secure water quality only along certain slopes or on certain soils, and may outweigh the opportunity cost of their implementation only in some areas and not in others. This is a major consideration for water funds, financial mechanisms for watershed management in predominantly agricultural systems, that must consider how to invest limited resources—in which activities, and where in the watershed.

Water funds promote habitat conservation, restoration, and improved agricultural practices in the upper reaches of a watershed to achieve diverse and often multiple goals including securing ample and clean water, recharging groundwater supplies, protecting against floods, landslides, and other natural disasters, and enhancing biodiversity.

Once a fund is established, an open question is how to achieve those goals. Best management practices could obviously be employed everywhere that agriculture is practiced, but if there are trade-offs to yields or area under production, as there often are, spatial targeting can find the most cost-effective places to focus efforts. By strategically locating a cover crop, lower tillage, a buffer strip, or a restored tract of forest in places that will make the greatest difference to improving ecosystem services like overall water quality or flood protection or even in providing adequate pollinators or natural enemies of agricultural pests, gains can be made in many desired benefits with minimal losses to agricultural production.

Improved targeting of these watershed investments can provide enhanced and more resilient ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes. Work by the Natural Capital Project has shown that approaches to prioritize investments, whether focused on a single service or multiple services, can improve the production of those services up to five-fold over a random investment.

Identifying priority areas

Considering both current and future environmental conditions, including climate extremes, can help identify priority areas for protecting ecosystem services to enhance resilience in the system. Areas with the highest levels of water yield today may overlap with areas most susceptible to soil erosion in future climates, as was shown to be the case in the Putomayo region of Colombia.

In Nicaragua, modeling of agricultural productivity and hydrological ecosystem services is helping to guide climate adaptation planning to identify climate “adaptation spots,” where different agricultural management can enhance agricultural production and other ecosystem services amidst climate change, and “pressure spots,” where growing conditions will improve in the future and trade-offs in ecosystem services should be considered as part of development (Girvetz et al. 2014).

When consideration of such trade-offs include not only delivery of food and water, but also a larger suite of services such as climate regulation, flood mitigation, recreation opportunities, cultural heritage, and provision of goods such as timber and fish or game cogenerated in the landscape, the implications of alternative choices are more clear, and enable design of agricultural systems that better meet societal needs—now and in an uncertain future.


Girvetz, E., Valle, A. M., Laderach, P. and Vogl, A. (2014). Technical Support to Apply the RIOS Analytical Modeling Tool to Guide Climate Adaptation Planning. Report in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and Natural Capital Project.


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