In our initial article, Prof. Dr. Martin Volk briefly describes the Horizon 2020 OPTAIN project. He also answers to our questions about its key elements and purpose.
The project OPTAIN has just started, and we are bringing you a short interview with Prof. Martin Volk, OPTAIN coordinator, to answer some basic questions about the project and its envisioned influence.
How did you choose OPTAIN's focus, why NSWRM in agro sector?
The main focus of our working group at UFZ is on analyzing the impact of land use and climate change on water quality and quantity as well as on biodiversity. We try to identify trade-offs and synergies among different land and water users as well as nature conservation. We use models and optimization approaches here, but also the involvement of actors and stakeholders such as decision-makers and farmers play an important role in our studies.
Agriculture is in most European countries the dominant land use, producing food, fodder and bioenergy, but on the other hand it also leads to soil erosion, biodiversity and nutrient loss and the pollution of rivers. That means that we always had also an eye on agriculture as a „process-controlling factor "in our previous projects, where we investigated, for example the impact of best management practices, Agri-environmental measures or green-blue infrastructures. Natural/Small Water Retention Measures (NSWRM) are in multiple ways helpful measures to mitigate the above-mentioned conflicts (trade-offs) between agricultural water uses (e.g., plant production, animals) and other human and environmental demands for water, including drinking water or maintaining environmental flow. These conflicts will probably be aggravated by an increasing number of extreme events such as droughts and heavy rainfall. NSWRMs have another important advantage: They are contributing to the achievement of different Sustainable Development Goals and environmental targets of European Union policies. Our Slovenian partner, Matjaž Glavan (University of Ljubljana), who works in similar fields like my group, once called me and said that there is a Horizon2020 call that could be interesting for our fields of research. We met some friends and colleagues at an international conference, called others, and formed the first consortium.
Please, describe the process of choosing OPTAIN partners, why them?
There are several project partners that are very experienced in the use of the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT). SWAT is a catchment scale model to simulate the quality and quantity of surface and ground water and predict the environmental impact of land use, land management practices, and climate change. There is a large world-wide community that develops and applies the model, staying in contact with each other and the main developers at the USDA-ARS in Temple, Texas, USA. SWAT is suitable to simulate the impact of several NSWRMs in the agro sector. So, at first, Matjaž and my team activated some of our European friends and colleagues (e.g., in Lithuania, Poland, Switzerland, etc.) that use SWAT to inspire them for the idea of writing together a project application. Of course, we all have some experience with other European projects, which has led to international networks. That means some partners know other colleagues that might work on smaller scale models, economic assessment, policies, actor involvement, or dissemination activities, etc. We also looked who is working in which bio-geographic region, since having partners working in continental, pannonian, and boreal biogeographical regions was one of the criteria for being eligible for applying at this call. We were also happy to have the Global Water Partnership Central and Eastern Europe as well as partners that were involved in the projects on Natural Water Retention Measures and WOCAT that both provided catalogues of these measures from different perspectives. A positive aspect is here that we have the chance with OPTAIN to complement the catalogue with case study specific retention measures.
What's the biggest benefit (in general) that OPTAIN will bring?
First of all, OPTAIN compares the effectivity of NSWRM across three different biogeographical regions. Moreover, we identify which combinations of those measures are most efficient in each case study. As the long-term overarching impact, I would see that the farmers will be empowered to adapt their management, and to improve the sustainability of their agricultural system, which will stabilize yields and income. Moreover, our exchange will enable agricultural and water consultants to advice their clients based on the increased understanding of the relationships between agricultural systems, different landscape characteristics and specific NSWRM. This also supports expert personnel and policy makers in their decision-making processes, including the design of targeted and effective incentive systems. Finally, the scientific audience and professional experts will benefit through the methods, tools, data and publications that OPTAIN will provide with open access to. This will increase their innovation capacity in multiple ways.
What are the biggest challenges/drawbacks?
The first thing that I am thinking here are the problems caused by the pandemic. We have to set up numerous virtual meetings and workshops, which enables on the one hand more meetings, but on the other hand, they cannot replace personal meetings and social gatherings and exchange. This is even more true for the stakeholder workshops that we have to organize in all 14 case studies, bringing together farmers, agencies, scientists and other actors in multi-actor reference groups. It will be a challenge to organize these only as virtual meetings. The active stakeholder involvement from the beginning is one of the most important strengths of the project, since we get a picture of the existing retention measures, get aware of the problems and drawbacks, but might also be able to present alternative retention measure combinations. Other challenges are to harmonize the (model input) data from all case studies with different standards and data availability and to achieve the implementation of the harmonized model (and optimization) approach without a noteworthy delay. Finally, I guess the problem to have timely result transfers input from one project partner (or working package) to another is always present in such large European projects.