NIOO theme ‘Sustainable water and land use’

NIOO theme ‘Sustainable water and land use’

Healthy surface water and soils are essential for life on earth, providing diverse life-support functions including nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and oxygen generation, degradation of xenobiotics and providing substrates for plant growth and the production of food, feed and fiber. However, these ecosystem services are greatly affected by the discharge of excess nutrients, pesticides, medicines and micro-pollutants by industry, agriculture and aquaculture. The NIOO theme ‘Sustainable Water and Land use’ combines research on the services that a broad range of ecosystems provide and how this is impacted by society. As such, NIOO contributes fundamental knowledge that will help achieve different sustainable development goals, notably including SDG2 (Zero Hunger), SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG14 (Life Below Water) and SDG15 (Life on Land). 

What do we mean with sustainable land and water use?

Sustainable land and water use means that humanity uses aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a way that will not overexploit the system, so that they can keep providing the same or even more services for future generations.

Why is this important in the context of ecology?

Ecological interactions form the basis of the functioning of ecosystems, and thereby the services that these offer to humanity. Land and water use can therefore only be sustainable in the long term when the underlying ecology of the system is well understood. As such, ecology forms the backbone of sustainable land and water use.


Role 1: Perform leading ecological research

1.1.  Where is ecological research in the context of sustainable land and water use moving (i.e. describe the field);

Water and land are essential for life and food production. Water is becoming scarce and land degraded. There is an urgent need for sustainable usage of water and land. Including ecology in the context of water and land usage is crucial to generate a wealth of ideas for innovations in water management, eco-technological engineering, agriculture, horticulture, grassland management, climate-smart forestry and water and land restoration. Understanding the complexity of aquatic food webs is highly instrumental for new approaches to manage freshwater ecosystems toward a sustainable water quality, develop nature-based solutions, and closing water and nutrient cycles. Deciphering the soil and plant microbiomes as well as microbiome-macrobiome interactions in natural ecosystems generates novel insights for the design of innovative strategies for sustainable crop and food production.

1.2.                  What has NIOO contributed, what are we contributing now?

Both in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, we study the role of direct (e.g. predator-prey) interactions, as well as the role of indirect (e.g. chemistry-mediated) interactions. NIOO contributes to a number of threats to water quality, notably including changes in land and water use, eutrophication, climate change and emergent pollutants such as microplastics and pharmaceuticals. Specifically, NIOO uses fundamental ecological knowledge to support water management by developing predictive ecosystem models, advising on best monitoring practises for harmful cyanobacterial blooms, and studying effectivity of lake restoration measures. NIOO furthermore contributes to study the aboveground-belowground interactions to unravel how soil management influences the severity of pests, diseases and beneficial microbes. Going back to the roots of wild ancestors of crops grown in their centres of origin, examining species and community interactions along successional gradients, studying food webs in water and soil, and ecosystem restoration under current and future climate conditions are central topics of NIOO’s research program.


Role 2: Stimulate ecological research in the Netherlands

2.1.                  Infrastructure (LTERS/facilities/etc.)

NIOO facilitates and stimulates ecological research in the Netherlands by initiating facilities and infrastructure for long-term ecological research on sustainable land and water use.

For aquatic ecosystems, NIOO coordinates research in outdoor experimental ponds, where the resilience of wetland vegetation to eutrophication, grazing and water level fluctuations is tested. In the field, NIOO coordinates research on the development and functioning of novel ecosystem Marker Wadden, in lake Markermeer. Lake Markermeer experienced declines in fish and water bird abundances over the last decades; Marker Wadden is a newly built archipelago aimed to provide littoral habitat that can function as a rich feeding site for fish and birds, as well as a spawning and nursery site for fish and a breeding site for birds.  Moreover, NIOO has a range of indoor mesocosm facilities for studying global change impacts on aquatic ecosystems, which is used to inform water management. Lastly, the aquatic ecology laboratories have state-of-the-art chemostat facilities for highly controlled eco-physiological and community studies used to inform algae production companies and sustainable algae based waste water treatment engineering solutions.


For terrestrial ecosystems, NIOO coordinates research in several experimental and field sites to study consequences of altered land use for ecosystem functioning and practices for ecological restoration. These include the experimental CLUE fields on the Veluwe, established in 1996, to study secondary succession from former agricultural land into species rich grasslands. In addition, a chronosequence of Veluwe sites that span a range of a few years to several decades since abandonment of agricultural production practices is used to study changes in soil communities and ecosystem functioning during secondary succession. Soil transplantations are used to study whether this can accelerate succession towards target vegetations to advice stakeholders involved in nature restoration. Recently NIOO added an experimental facility of 60 Soil Ecotrons, containing large soil cores with clay or sand soils from Dutch production grasslands, to study the impact of soil management including soil transplantation on soil life and ecosystem services. Research in the UNESCO biosphere reserve Maasheggen is coordinated to study effects of land use and landscape elements on ecosystem services. NIOO has also established a Dutch site within the global Nutrient Network to study the impact of land use (fertilization and grazing) on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. NIOO coordinates research in another set of Dutch sites to study the impact of conventional versus organic farming on ecosystem functions.

2.2.                  Networks general ecological (active roles in e.g. CSE, CWE, NERN, NAEM, …) and linked to sustainable land and water use (cyanobacteria platform, etc.)

NIOO has an active role in general ecological networks in the Netherlands. NIOO participates in the Netherlands Ecological Research Network and the organization of its annual meetings (chair of NAEM; organizers and/or invited speakers in Current Themes in Ecology). NIOO plays an active role in networks related to sustainable water- and land use.

For aquatic systems, NIOO chairs and coordinates the Centre for Wetland Ecology, a platform for Ducth and Flemish academic groups studying aquatic ecosystems and organises symposia for academics and stakeholders active in the field of aquatic ecology and water and nature management on trends in aquatic ecology and sustainable water management. Furthermore, NIOO is a board member of the platform on ecological restoration of lakes as an academic partner in the platform, which is operated by water managers and policy makers. NIOO also provide a chairperson for the platform cyanobacteria, which is a national expert group bringing together aquatic science and management to advise on harmful cyanobacterial bloom monitoring, risk assessment and mitigation.

For terrestrial systems, NIOO is co-initiator of the Centre for Soil Ecology (NIOO/WUR) that promotes collaborative research opportunities in the field of soil ecology, creates societal awareness of the importance of soil ecology for developing sustainable land use practices and develops strategic programs for the Dutch government in this field. NIOO has initiated the Calibration Centre for Soil as an instrument of the programme Below the Surface (collaboration with IUCN-NL and the Dutch Butterfly Association), to build a reference database for soil biodiversity in the Netherlands. 

Role 3: Share ecological knowledge with society

The acquired ecological knowledge at NIOO is shared with society through various ways, including direct collaboration with stakeholders and citizens, as well as direct outreach to society by our active PR department.

3.1.                  Collaboration with stakeholders from industry, agriculture and governments

NIOO has different types of collaborations with stakeholders, from a very close involvement through co-design of methodologies to more loosely collaborative projects with involvement of stakeholder groups. For example, the Marker Wadden lake restoration project closely involves partners from Natuurmonumenten, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Water knowledge institute Deltares, Wageningen Marine Research, Wageningen Environmental Research, building company Boskalis, building with nature consortium Ecoshape and Sport Fisheries Netherlands. Moreover, many existing collaborations with water management from various governments (water boards, directorate-general for public works and water management, provinces and municipalities) use ecological knowledge to advice on a wide range of water quality issues from cyanobacterial bloom management to lake restoration.  Moreover, knowledge on harmful cyanobacterial blooms is directly shared through active involvement in a national working group that directly advises the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Additionally, NIOO contributes to eco-technological engineering solutions for sustainable water use through developing algae based reactors and communities in close collaboration with a range of stakeholders from government (e.g. water boards, municipalities) and industry (check METS).

3.2.                  Involvement of citizens in science (see also role 2)

At NIOO various projects closely involve citizens for data collection. Not only does this provide a direct interaction with society, but also it capitalizes on the great potential for a large number of observers. Importantly, by stimulating such research NIOO contributes to enhanced science literacy and ecological awareness in the Dutch society, and thereby supporting a more sustainable future in water and on land. For instance, the Dutch Centre for Avian Migration and Demography involves over … citizens that…[AnE?] In addition, NIOO has active citizen science campaigns, such as the ‘Slootjesdagen’ (Ditch Days) in close collaboration with IVN Nature Education, where over 1,000 citizens annually contribute water insect observations and samples for water quality. Moreover, NIOO organizes the annual Soil Animal Day.


3.3.                  Projects (e.g. Living Labs, …)

NIOO coordinates a Living Lab on biodiversity recovery in rural areas based in the dune area and flower bulb cultivation fields in the west of the Netherlands and at the national level through connection with the Deltaplan Biodiversity Recovery. Here, we work transdisciplinary with academic partners from the governance sciences and Universities of Applied Sciences and with a large number of stakeholders, from bulb growing farmers to farming organisations, local and regional governments, waterboards, National Park Hollandse Duinen and many more. Together we follow a learning by doing approach in which scientists partner with locals to find ways to increase biodiversity through more sustainable land and water management.