Ecological flows are exclusionary, technocratic and top-down practices ... (but could be empowering)
Posted by Jeroen Vos and Rutgerd Boelens
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Following a century in which dominating nature by damming and canalizing rivers was a symbol of human civilization, environmentalist victories managed to mainstream the "ecological flows" notion. Ecological (or Environmental) flow regimes attempt to describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain riverine ecosystems and the human livelihoods dependent on these ecosystems. For example, the European Water Framework Directive makes concretizing ecological flows a central benchmark for water bodies' ecological status.
Ecological flow regimes are determined by experts based on scientific studies. International environmental elites might see this as a great advance in nature conservation and restoration of aquatic ecosystems. However, the current technocratic way of establishing "e-flow regimes" is top-down and negates local river use and locally held nature values. It results in exclusion of local communities and organizations that - though they should not be romanticized and certainly harbour their own inequities – cannot simply be dismissed. They deserve a fair chance, and often hold specific knowledge and values regarding the river, its uses, its ecosystems and the way these are managed.
This top-down establishing of e-flows is exclusionary as it ignores local stakeholders and other organisations, because they are not recognised as sufficiently knowledgeable. The parameters considered by so-called experts are environmental standards and thresholds for a handful of key species, and cost-benefit analysis. The methodologies applied for calculating and modelling the flow regime and establishing the minimum required e-flow are diverse. However, all use standardised technological packages that use, for example, percentages of average annual discharges, status of key species, various environmental thresholds, and economic analysis. However, what are considered "key species", what are "costs", and what are "benefits" depend on the specific position and values of each stakeholder. The modeler cannot be taken as "neutral".
The e-flow regime is imposed on the river by means of infrastructure that regulates the river's discharge (dams) or establish maximum water abstractions. The state water authority that controls this infrastructure and abstractions forms part of the national hydrocracy that rarely allows for any voice of the local stakeholders. In this way the process of establishing of ecological flows is technocratic and top-down.
We argue that contrary to the current practices, ecological flow regimes should be critically discussed, politically negotiated, and socially effectuated through stakeholder engagement, while being based on locally grounded resource uses, rights, practices, knowledge and values regarding river's socionatures. In this process, the local stakeholders, with help of others, would determine key species, allowed and prioritized uses, environmental thresholds, minimal discharges, maximum abstractions and ways of monitoring and enforcement. In this way the ecological flow would be based on an analysis of local context, history and water culture, and not simply follow imposed national or international standards. In this way ecological flows could be a way to empower local stakeholders.
Posted by Jeroen Vos and Rutgerd Boelens, Wageningen University, the Netherlands
(Photo credit: Martin Grau)
Thanks much to J Vos for articulating this trenchant critique and starting a much needed conversation. As an ethnographer of urban water infrastructure and culture, I would like to suggest that we can engage with, but not rely fully upon, the language of existing technocratic models. Take "stakeholders" for example. I have observed too many occasions when the stakeholder slot gets activated in a corrupt way, a way that perpetuates and propels water injustices even as it purports to accomplish the opposite. I look forward to this commentary.
In my experience, it is not the norm for e-flows to be decided exclusively top-down without consultation. I think e-flows have always been a social contract, meaning that the science, which may have uncertainties attached to it, is always subject to political and social pressures and the decisions about e-flows don't and can't completely disregard any water rights and benefits that have been established already. I am not sure what direction e-flows would take if more stakeholder consultation were to occur - in some cases more water would be assigned and in some cases less, I suspect. The design and authorisation of e-flows is only the first part of the story. Actually managing them is another matter.
The French case well illustrates the fact that the evaluation of environmental needs (as e-flows and as an annual volume) is based on a top-down legislation providing little space for stakeholder participation and local knowledge. However, it also shows that implementation of such e-flows gives way to responses that can be seen as hybridization processes between environmental objectives and local interests and strategies, involving 'institutional bricolage' at multiple scales.
In France, there are two types of e-flows. The first type is an uniform rule that impose, downstream of any diversion structure, a minimum flow of at least a 1/10 of the mean annual river flow at that point (or 1/20 when the mean annual river flow is greater than 80m3/s or in case of hydropower facilities). The second type of e-flows is defined through the 'Sustainable Withdrawals Reform' (SWR) that initially aimed at restoring a balance between water resources and withdrawals in the whole country by 2014 (or 2017 in case of a deficit over 30%). After eflows are determined total withdrawals are capped accordingly and water use licenses are re-issued (Erdlenbruch et al. 2013). Each of the six main river basins in the country, managed by a basin committee and a basin state representative, uses different methodologies to determine e-flows. In the Rhône basin, the “Estimhab” instream habitat model (Lamouroux and Jowett 2005) was applied in the 72 basins considered as deficit areas. Estimhab couples a hydraulic model (predicting water-column velocity, depth, particle size as a function of streamflow) and a microhabitat suitability model (predicting the weighed usable area as a function of species preferences and hydraulic variables).
The important uncertainties related to the methodology (underlined by the authors themselves, in particular when river flows are barely known; Lamouroux 2008) and the strong local implications of its results (imposition of cuts in withdrawals of up to 50-60%) have aroused protest in many places, mainly from farmers representatives. And indeed state officials have rallied around these (rather top-down authoritarian) eflow values in order to preserve the legitimacy of the reform.
In contrast, however, local stakeholders have chosen to negotiate the implementation phase. Indeed, to be registered as a "deficit area" liable to cuts in water use gives access to subsidies for improvements in irrigation efficiency, construction of water ponds, or water transfers. In the Durance river basin, in the South East of France, the SWR has led to a reduction or even to the cancelling of diversions from the lower reach of some tributaries (thus restoring river flows in those reaches), but coalitions of users, elected representatives and other stakeholders have successfully negotiated substitution transfers from the main stem of the Durance River. After being contested, e-flows appeared as an opportunity for a (almost fully subsidized) ‘hydro-social fix’ (Swyngedouw and Williams 2016)!
Erdlenbruch, K. et al. 2013. La gestion du manque d’eau structurel et des secheresses En France. Sciences Eaux & Territoires 11(2): 78. https://doi.org/10.3917/set.011.0078.
Lamouroux, N. and Jowett, I.G. 2005. Generalized Instream Habitat Models. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 62(1): 7–14. https://doi.org/10.1139/f04-163.
Lamouroux, N. 2008. Estimhab. Estimation de l'impact sur l'habitat aquatique de la gestion hydraulique des cours d'eau, Guide. 21 pages.
Swyngedouw, E. and Williams, J. 2016. From Spain’s Hydro-Deadlock to the Desalination Fix. Water International 41(1): 54–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2016.1107705.
There is little direct participation in the determination of eflows but the administration has some room for manoeuver when defining them: while the Estimhab method is indeed used to estimate Biological Target Flows (BTF) (in the Rhone-Mediterranean basins), they also sometimes consider the 1/10th of the module (yearly average flow) and even the 1/20th! In the Cèze River basin, for example, they decided that the 1/20th would be considered as the overall Environmental Target Flow (ETF) because the hydrology clearly did not allow to take 1/10th as a target and because it was in general slightly less constraining that the BTF… These 'adaptations' are fully under the state decision (in coordination with hired consultants) but also implicitly respond to the perceived feasibility and degree of rejection by local users.
It is actually interesting to note that the imposition of an overall norm (1/10th of the module) for the whole of France is a quite remarkable example of simplification of complexity: how could such a uniform norm apply to different environments and hydrologies, in particular considering that France is a transition country between northern European and Mediterranean climates? Indeed it was found out that the norm was quite robust for the northern part of the country but much less so in Mediterranean climates, where in particular some intermittent rivers can be found, meaning that the norm imposes these rivers to always flow at a minimum of 1/10th or 1/20th of the module…
Ecological flow is very important for river become maintaining status of lively river such as Ganga more then 2500 KM all along the 5 states of India. Big dams, barrage, canal diversion made it partially in the category, needs attention of farmers, planers, implementors and last very important politicians.
For readers who would like to learn more about the socio-political history of e-flows, as well as a critique of its methodological traditions, models, and exclusions, please see the paper below (free access). This paper also profiles more recent e-flows cases that have sought to include local people's diverse knowledges and ways of relating to water and calls for scientists and water managers to place this recognition at the center of future environmental flow assessments.
Just to add to Sue's comment: I did and do not know about e-flows. I agree with everything that Jeroen and Rutgerd are positing. Perhaps as a small note of hope: the e-flow scientists whom I met at the workshop that led to the above paper were very aware of the difficulties with the concept, and the very purpose of the workshop was to discuss some of those. Many e-flow scientists are operating at the interface of policy and science in which old-fashioned or outdated positivist claims to scientific objectivity are sometimes adhered to not because of strong epistemological belief, but because they are more effective in pushing political decisions in the right direction. I think that what this means is that in discussing the merits of the concept, it is important to consider where (in which socio-political domains) and for what purposes it is mobilized. If the concept is mobilized to push water allocation decisions in more environmental directions - and create political room for allowing more water to flow in he river - it may need to have different characteristics than if it serves to guide the practical implementation of specific e-flow projects.
Well written perspective on ecological flows. However, the author have given an theroectical aspects of making it bottom up approach. In developing countries with dense popullation the people migrate the source once it is stressed. My experience in dealing for local level views end up in vague results. So the prevailing indicators mentioned earlier as status of species, % flows etc are doing satisfactory till other robust methodologies that will result in more authentic way of estimating e flow should continue. After all the person who is taking up such studies is also a stakeholder. His/her views cannot be negated only because it is top down.
The idea of e-flow has a presumption about having access to legitimate data and methods. What if we have no legitimate source of information? I have witnessed situations that stakeholders (sometimes with sophistry) try to challenge data sources and the water authority (responsible for data provision) is not able to defend. Having defendable data sources does not necessarily occur through extensive infrastructural developments for data gathering. It is just, too good to be true that a major partner of previous water development projects is trying to give water back to nature. State water authorities might be able to legitimize their data (at least for a short period) for example to construct a dam, but for giving water back to nature, gaining the legitimacy is not that easy.
I would not necessarily agree that ecological flows are top down.There is more detail to the morphology and ecology of rivers. In parts of the world one finds deep rivers, stoney river, dry river beds and sand river beds and this has lead technocrats to categorise damming into low , medium and high risk. Sometimes there is no ecology to talk about because flow regimes are linked to run off which feeds into dry river beds which leads to dams being designed to capture this run off and thus catchment sizes become the key consideration which some countries are addressing this through environmental and social screening (ESS). I would probably contend that mainstreaming the ecological flows notion depends on risk categorization and to avoid the top down challenges environmental social screenining would allow for stakeholders to come on board. I have always believed that there is a good and bad side to damming and cannalizing of rivers.
Jeroen Vos's article clearly stakes out the two conflicting poles and I like the term 'hydrocracy'! But it is an totally abstract treatment. Having researched the environmental-justice aspects of freshwater use in historic Palestine, including both the Jordan River and aquifers, I am certain that the framework Vos sets out, however useful in situations within countries which are relatively participatory-democratic and do not jail or kill political dissenters, is not capable of analysing, much less solving, the water conflicts in Palestine/Israel.
The idea that in historic Palestine 'stakeholders' in the usual sense could even come within a stone's throw of the room in which negotiations occur, is pure fantasy. The idea that ecologically-defined watersheds are relevant, likewise. Defining, or at least understanding, the 'socionature' of the aquifers and larger and smaller rivers or riverbeds would require a lot of knowledge of the history of the entire past 100 years, of the political theory of citizenship rights (including those of 6-7 million Palestinian refugees), of international law and of the present power imbalance in favour of the stakeholders who politically control (all of) historic Palestine.
I hope I have not 'overegged the pudding'. I just want to suggest that this concrete example is an incredibly hard nut to crack. Perhaps Vos's framework can provide a start, but I believe it will soon be found that before the analysis can proceed, a good dozen ethical, historical and political NORMATIVE questions would have to be answered. I urge Water Alternatives to give priority to tackling this case, surrounding which there is so much bloodshed and injustice.
Thank you, Blake Alcott, ecological economist and activist for One Democratic State in Palestine
"Six to seven million Palestinian refugees", down to the third or fourth generation by now, ehhh? The Kingdom of Jordan, incidentally, occupies about 70% of "historic Palestine"; if you mean by that "ex-British mandate Palestine"; and if you mean by that the erstwhile full extent of Ottoman Palestine. And is it the Zionists whom you apparently implied "jail and kill political dissenters"? Maybe this website/listserver would be better served with less waving of bloody shirts.
1. Yes, refugee status both ethically and in international law neither diminishes nor expires over time. Yes, it was the present hegemon, Israel, which refused to let the vast majority of these refugees, resp. their recent ancestors, return to their homes as of 1948.
2. Already in late spring 1921 Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, succeeded in getting the British Cabinet and the Council of the League of Nations to separate off Mandatory Trans-Jordan from Palestine, east and west of the Jordan river, respectively. Universally, in both political and academic discussion, 'historic Palestine' refers to the area covered by the Mandate as of late spring 1921 (now the West Bank, Gaza and Israel).
3. Yes, in this particular case it is the Zionists who have and do 'jail and kill political dissenters'. Are you suggesting that determining who gets to be a stakeholder is never anything but some nice discussion about who is affected, that 'rights' are always peacefully determined around a table?
4. Your post - I am 'waving bloody shirts'?!? - distracts from my main, broader point, which in the case of Palestine presents exceptional, perhaps unique, challenges in determining who has rights to water, who is a stakeholder. Whether the costs and benefits pertain to non-human species, human survival, human affluence and health, recreation, religious feeling, heritage, or aesthetics, etc., there are decisions that have to be made prior to further analysis, prior to invoking 'ecology', namely the familiar ones of who are the stakeholders. I am indirectly asking you water professionals to take on this difficult case.
5. You suggest this 'website/listserver' might be better off without... what, my comment, or me? If the editors of the forum are weighing this, I ask that someone with experience in the Palestine region be consulted - perhaps Clemens Messerschmid, who is an expert and has published in this journal? Maybe even consult me?
Thank you. Blake Alcott, Ayvalik, Turkey
As an environmental economist, I have always cringed at the need to justify e-flows (etc.) based on some calculation of "ecosystem services" but the idea -- that ecosystems provide value to society (and especially the poor) -- is sound.
I agree that e-flows should reflect local conditions, and I will add/emphasize that e-flows must often be "taken back" from privatized water (as happens in Australia with the MDB), since such private rights were often given without regard to the environment.
As water scarcity increases globally, the risk of reducing/ending e-flows grows, and that's a real mistake, given their value to society.
So YES to e-flows, no matter how you calculate them
'How they are calculated' is actually what matters… in principle everyone will be happy to have eflows (a public good as you say) but the problem will be their implementation : how much will actual uses (and which ones) have to be reduced (assuming that eflows are chiefly established in rivers where this is made necessary because of observed overdraft)? And how much effort will be required depends on how you calculate the minimum desirable flow. So people whose water use will be affected surely think that 'how you measure them' does matter.
And here science will be brandished as the legitimate 'actor' that is able to give an answer. But the question is complex, value-laden (what is a 'healthy' river?) and knowledge is partial. There will therefore be a tension between resorting to science as the definite answer and acknowledging this uncertainty. If you want to protect the legitimacy of your eflow policy you will tune down the uncertainty ('it's not perfect but this is based on the best knowledge available', etc). But if the proposed eflow value is perceived by local stakeholders as completely 'unrealistic' or 'absurd', then you are likely to be in trouble when implementing the policy.
Like in many other fields of water management (e.g. groundwater overabstraction) a degree of buy-in from users is necessary. And this will have to come from a subtle balance of sticks and carrots. As illustrated above by Martin Laurenceau for the Durance River France), local stakeholders often protest against the eflow studies but (maybe in part because they don't feel prepared to enter into scientific arguments) chose to rally around the definition of what they could get in compensation for curtailing their abstraction (in most cases subsidized storage or water transfers).
The authors are certainly right to point out how the sheer mentioning of the heal-all word "ecological" can be used as an almost perfect camouflage for very different interests. Their analysis and remedy however falls somewhat short: It seems they are simply banking on "local stakeholder" participation, which, as Stephanie Kane correctly points out is yet another and almost equally loaded and over-promising term. It is somewhat over-stretching to expect that with such “local stakeholders” on board, decisions would "be based on an analysis of local context, history and water culture". Such hopes, although well-meaning may just as much "romanticize" what is going on in water use...
Yet, I still appreciate their critical approach to that over-promising, at least over-simplifying and all too often misleading super-hegemonic paradigm of "ecology".
- - with best regards from that country, where ecological NGOs (like EcoPeace) are drafting "alternative_MasterPlans" for the Jordan River that promise to restore "ecology", but don't even bother to make any effort in hiding the fact that they have no interest whatsoever to address the long-standing issue of total inequality in water use of its flows... (e.g. siphon off 5% of Israeli appropriated flows “back to nature" - but not a drop to Palestinians...)
To see an example of ideational annexation by EcoPeace, refer to: Fig. 14 in (https://www.globalnature.org/bausteine.net/f/8229/RegionalNGOMasterPlanFinal.pdf?fd=0) - it shows: “Israeli” Reserves (but located squarely inside the occupied West Bank)
Juxtapose this with: (https://i.ytimg.com/vi/EFN6ltkfbAY/hqdefault.jpg) - Jordan Valley Annexation Plan (Sep-19)
A useful and provocative paper! Everything that the authors say is true, but that is for eflow methods that are already becoming outdated. Yes, eflows were initially top down and technocratic, however new approaches begin the whole process by engagement with stakeholders to jointly set the objectives for the water resource, to define what socio-economic (and also ecological) value should be provided by the river. This does pose problems as ideally this would be a very comprehensive engagement process - so the "cheap" and much less satisfactory version is to structure the eflows on the documented vision and management strategies for the water resource. Take a look at the Nile Basin Framework for eflows and see how they are doing it. The Framework starts with setting the vision and objectives. This approach is published as PROBFLO - which you can see at https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-22-957-2018
I believe the text here displayed well thought out. I don't think it was written in a way to help solve any problems; but it has made discussion on a keen topic possible. The text gives rise to many ideas: unequal access to water flows; power within relationships, between different groups that need/want access to certaine water (river) basins; the need to think these e-flows in a local sense; and a solid criticism oon the way e-flows have been undergone.
Personally, I think they hit spot on with a topic I've seen happen in my own country (Peru). These happenings are mostly done during negotiating tables after clinging conflicts; development projects by some NGO; or governmental programmes, looking to help vulnerable groups: the differences in power, where these groups play out their roles is a key aspect to look at. I would also like to point that the text suggests we take into account, that before these e-flow events happen, studies should be pursued and interactions should look at (possibly mitigate) the power struggles these e-flows will surely give rise to.
Another point I feel this text gives is the fact that many of the power struggles that happen in e-flows are, in fact, sought out by some of the actors that play along the relationship: for example, transnational companies feel much more safer dealing with national governments, than with local groups. This gives many companies an uneven playing field, where along a historical marginalization of these local groups, has given place to an uneven way of dealing many aspects tied up with the word "development", a concept that e-flows probably lean up against, in certain countries.
Implementing e-flows in practice is a challenge and I would like to congratulate the colleagues for posting it in the Forum.
Although the evaluation of an e-flow is subject to huge hydrological and ecological uncertainties, its implementation is a question of "good" hydro-governance https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-78625-4.
By hydro-governance I mean the integration of water management and policy into the political process.
The political dimension is the driving force of the all process and may take various forms (authoritarian, democratic, stakeholders interactive, ....) at various levels (international, national, regional, local).
The "good" hydro-governance should combine science, policy and management for resolving economic, environmental and social conflicts at all levels. For implementing e-flows and achieving hydrological and ecological sustainability, education and social learning are necessary conditions, mainly at local level, where the problems arise.
First, I want to say that I appreciate very much the many valuable comments made to this first entry to this new online WA forum! (Many thanks to Francois Molle, Douglas Merrey and Peter Mollinga for organizing this Forum!)
Second, I agree with Stephanie Kane and Clemens Messerschmid that involving "stakeholders" is a very political process in itself: who defines what are the relevant stakeholders, and what voice and decision-making power they might have in the establishing of an eflow are important questions to be asked. Putting "local" knowledge and preferences above "scientific" knowledge indeed bears the risk of romanticizing. The examples in the article from Anderson etal. ( https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wat2.1381 posted by Sue Jackson) shows that many forms exist to organize the involvement of different type of stakeholders. However, an important questions remains: How to ensure empowerment of groups that care for the river?