Working with Nature on Navigable Waterways

Context of Transport Climate Action

Climate change will impact waterborne transport infrastructure in many ways. Reducing vulnerability, increasing resilience, and otherwise adapting ports, harbours, waterways, canals or marinas to the projected changes will bring many challenges. In some cases, adaptation may simply involve building stronger, higher or deeper. In other cases, the challenges will be more profound.

In the meantime, there is increasing awareness of the need to ensure that navigation infrastructure is designed to work with natural processes; to protect ecosystem services; and to enhance natural habitats as part of a development project. PIANC’s Working with Nature philosophy aims to capture these objectives by promoting a proactive, integrated way of thinking that is entirely consistent with delivering effective climate change adaptation.

Working with Nature focuses on:

  • Achieving the project objectives in an ecosystem context rather than assessing the consequences of a predefined project design; and
  • Identifying win-win solutions rather than simply minimising ecological harm.


The conventional approach of designing inland or maritime navigation infrastructure and then assessing its potential environmental impacts inevitably revolves around damage limitation, and is not therefore sustainable. Working with Nature sets out four steps to be followed early in the project development process in order to identify options for sustainable navigation infrastructure: fundamentally, the Working with Nature philosophy is based on doing things in a different order.

As indicated by the italics below, climate change projections can easily be accommodated in the infrastructure project planning and design process when applying the four steps of the Working with Nature philosophy:

  1. Establish project need and objectives: include an objective to ‘climate proof’ the development, reducing vulnerability or increasing resilience to the effects of climate change
  1. Understand the environment: understand the implications of future changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, etc. for the natural environment including ecosystems, as well as for infrastructure
  1. Make meaningful use of stakeholder engagement; identify win-win options: consider what is needed to adapt to climate change both from a technical and a nature perspective
  1. Prepare project proposals to benefit both navigation and nature: design a project that helps to improve the resilience and/or reduce the vulnerability of both infrastructure and ecosystems.


The promotion and implementation of PIANC’s Working with Nature philosophy has several strands. A Position Paper, published in 2008 and updated in 2011, is available in several languages via

PIANC has established a certificate and award scheme. Navigation infrastructure projects that can demonstrate how they embraced the Working with Nature philosophy are awarded a certificate; projects in the planning stage can also apply (

At its four-yearly international congress, PIANC makes an award to the project considered by the Working with Nature jury to best represent and reflect the Working with Nature values. In 2014, this award was presented to the ‘New Tidal Area Kreetsand, Elbe River’ from Germany, a project involving the creation of a new wetland area designed to dissipate tidal energy and reduce the flood current, in turn reducing upstream sediment transport and dredging requirements; see:

Finally, PIANC’s Working Group 176 is working to prepare technical guidance on Working with Nature in practice. This guidance, which will be complete in 2016, will describe specific tools, steps and practices that can be used to apply the philosophy and it will draw on the growing Working with Nature project database.

Three Projects representing Working-with-Nature in practice.


New tidal Area Kreetsand, GERMANY (winner, WwN award, 2014)


3 Meter Navigation Channel Middle Mississippi, USA (runner-up, WwN award, 2014)


Flood Spillway Rees, GERMANY (runner-up, WwN award, 2014)


In common with other types of infrastructure, steps need to be taken to adapt inland and maritime navigation infrastructure to the effects of a changing climate. It is no longer acceptable to use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. As with the steps needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is becoming increasingly well recognised that earlier adaptation action can mean less costly adjustments. Working with Nature therefore has a potentially important role to play, not only in protecting nature, but also in adapting to climate change, in particular by helping those responsible for developing new and replacement navigation infrastructure to identify the ‘low-hanging fruit’.

Applying the Working with Nature philosophy therefore enables project proponents to design sustainable inland or maritime navigation infrastructure projects that:

  • work with rather than against natural processes
  • protect and enhance ecosystems, and avoid a net loss of biodiversity, and
  • reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience to climate change.

Potential for scaling up

When it was first developed, Working with Nature aimed to change the way in which the owners and operators of waterborne transport infrastructure approached the planning and design of new developments. It encouraged the proponents of navigation infrastructure projects to consider nature and natural processes, and to engage with other stakeholders. Over time, it became clear that the same philosophy can be applied to replacement as well as new infrastructure, and that the way of thinking advocated by Working with Nature is also ideally suited to planning for climate change adaptation.

In the meantime, it was identified that technical guidance on applying the four steps advocated by the philosophy would be useful. This guidance is now in preparation.

But it need not stop there. The principles embodied in the Working with Nature philosophy are arguably much more widely applicable. So, the evolving Working with Nature guidance might also be useful to those designing bridges, embankments, or other types of road and rail infrastructure particularly where there is an interaction with water; and to those responsible for flood defence and coast protection infrastructure. Collaborating with other stakeholders to find win-win solutions; and working with natural processes to protect ecosystems, to reduce vulnerability and improve resilience represent good practice ideals that extend well beyond the navigation sector.

Selected references 

More information about PIANC’s Working with Nature initiative can be found at and about projects awarded certificates at

Fuchs, E. (2014): Examples and Experiences with the PIANC Working-with-Nature Database and Prize Awarding. 33. PIANC Congress, San Francisco 01st -05th June 2014. Book of Abstracts.

Fuchs, E. (2011): The PIANC “Working with Nature” Philosophy for integrated Waterway Planning and the essential need of hydro-ecological knowledge. in: HydroEco 2011, Hydrology and Ecology: Ecosystems, Groundwater and Surface Water – Pressures and Options, Volume of Abstracts, ed.: H.P. Nachtnebel and K. Kovar, , ISBN 978-3-900962-95-1. p.129





Position paper published 2008; development of guidance started 2015


Application of philosophy and collation of case studies ongoing; technical guidance due for publication 2016


Global, Adaptation, Freight, Passenger, Technology, Partnerships, Awareness




Elmar Fuchs: , Paul Scherrer:

“Receiving the Working With Nature certificate was the highlight of the design phase of the project for two reasons : on one hand it was the recognition of all the efforts made to implement dialogue with the stakeholders and to lead the studies according to this innovative method; on the other hand it helped convince sceptical external and internal participants that we were not alone in doing things the right way.”
-Jean-Pierre GUELLEC
EMERHODE Project manager
Grand Port Maritime du Havre