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Freshwater Management Series No. 7


A Technical Approach in Environmental Management


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Rational environmental management means making the best use of natural resources to meet basic human needs without destroying their sustaining environmental base. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the intersecting elements within the larger frame of development and implies the adoption and use of alternative, environmentally sound development strategies and associated technologies.

The term phytotechnology describes the application of science and engineering to examine problems and provide solutions involving plants . The term itself is helpful in promoting a broader understanding of the importance of plants and their beneficial role within both societal and natural systems. A central component of this is the use of plants as living technologies that provide services in addressing environmental issues.

Phytotechnology applications employ ecological engineering principles and hence are considered to be ecotechnologies. Ecotechnologies are based on the science of ecology and the consideration of the ecosystem as an integral part of any proposed human or societal interventions involving the natural environment. Ecotechnologies are dependent on the self designing capabilities of ecosystems and nature. The focus on, and use of, biological species, communities, and ecosystems distinguishes ecotechnologies from the more conventional engineering technology approaches which seldom consider integrative ecosystem-based approaches.

Combined with an understanding of hydrological and biogeochemical processes, phytotechnologies can be used to increase plant biomass and diversity and to regulate nutrients and water dynamics, thereby enhancing ecosystem carrying capacity and the resilience and functionality of ecosystems. This can lead to significant improvements in water quality, enhanced biodiversity, improved agricultural production and potential bioenergy generation, as well as remediation and restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Environmentally beneficial applications of phytotechnologies involve the use of plants to augment the capacity of ecosystems to absorb impacts; and to manipulate the ecosystem to prevent, reduce or remediate pollution. Plants can be used to break down or sequester pollutants (sometimes making useful products as an added benefit), or replace certain products or processes that pollute with ones that do not. Applications can include the use of plants for the restoration of ecosystems and the hydrological cycle. Plants can also be used as indicators for monitoring and assessing ecosystems health.

The application of phytotechnologies in watershed management is complementary to Ecohydrology as both approaches involve the enhancement of the capacity of natural ecosystems to protect water resources and shoreline ecosystems. Phytotechnologies also play an important role with respect to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as plants are natural sinks for carbon dioxide. Furthermore, some phytotechnology applications involving the use of plants for housing, food, forage and sources of medicine can create employment. This is particularly important in developing countries.

Although the concept is not entirely new, the area of Phytotechnology is rapidly evolving and novel applications are continuing to emerge. Some examples of phytotechnology applications are:

The use of plants to reduce or solve pollution problems that otherwise would be more harmful to other ecosystems. An example is the use of wetlands for wastewater treatment.
The replication of ecosystems and plant communities to reduce or solve a pollution problem. Examples are constructed ecosystems such as ponds and wetlands for treatment of wastewater or diffuse pollution sources.
The use of plants to facilitate the recovery of ecosystems after significant disturbances. Examples are coal mine reclamation and the restoration of lakes and rivers.
The use of plants for societal benefits within the context of a managed ecosystem. Examples a re integrated agriculture and the management of renewable resources.
The increased use of plants as sinks for carbon dioxide to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Examples of this are reforestation and afforestation.
The use of plants to augment the natural capacity of urban areas to mitigate pollution impacts and moderate energy extremes. An example is the use of rooftop vegetation, or “greenroofs”.
man weaving thatched roof Man weaving thatched roof  

An understanding of the potential and limitations of phytotechnologies is necessary for their successful application. Limitations include insufficient knowledge and expertise regarding plant selection and the factors that influence plant growth, as well as public and regulatory acceptance. Each application of phytotechnology involves site-specific considerations and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The developers and proponents of phytotechnology systems must be able to demonstrate how phytotechnologies will meet environmental performance objectives while minimizing potential risks to human health.

The application of phytotechnology involves more than going to a site and planting seedlings, grass or some other type of plant. Phytotechnology is an in situ approach, whether used in the creation of artificial wetlands for water treatment, riparian recuperation and river/shore bank management, or site remediation, that requires careful consideration of site-specific characteristics and ecosystem interactions. Native plants are generally preferred for phytotechnology applications. In most applications, plants that are adapted to local conditions will have better chances of success than non-adapted plants. The use of mixed species of vegetation can also lead to greater chances of success than the use of monocultures, which may be highly prone to pests and reduce the natural genetic pool. Care should be taken not to introduce species of plants that are invasive or a nuisance that may cause greater damage than the expected benefits from their use.

The effectiveness of phytotechnology applications depends on having both broad-based and expert input into their development, adoption and ongoing monitoring. Governments, the private sector and citizens must all be involved, and systems for collecting, synthesizing and feeding back information and knowledge on phytotechnologies must be established and maintained. Issues and concerns must be addressed in a transparent, credible manner, and proactive strategies are required to ensure the responsible development and application of phytotechnologies.

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