The logics and politics of environmental flows - A review

Jason Alexandra
Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia; jason.alexandra@anu.edu.au

Lauren Rickards
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia; l.rickards@latrobe.edu.au

Claudia Pahl-Wostl
Institute of Geography, Institute of Environmental Systems Research University of Osnabrück, Osnabrück, Germany; cpahlwos@uni-osnabrueck.de

ABSTRACT: Environmental flows (or Eflows) refer to water that is allocated to the environment through the deliberate release of stored water or planned allocations. Since the late 20th century, Eflows have become increasingly influential in water policy. Over several decades, the research, policy and practice of Eflows has broadened from addressing flow requirements of specific river reaches or the needs of significant species such as salmon, to a broader focus on integrated strategies that aim to sustain rivers’ diverse values. Eflow research has generated an extensive literature that is focused on the scientific and sociopolitical dimensions of managing river flows. We examine this literature critically, tracing the development, application and expansion of Eflows and exploring the shifting norms, framings and assumptions that underpin their theory and practice, including contestations about policy decisions. Our analysis indicates that the politics of environmental flows refracts socially constructed and contested views about nature and river systems and raises fundamental questions about how decisions are made and who decides. While there is a tendency to try to depoliticise Eflows by rendering decisions technical, we argue that, like all water allocation decisions and all water science, Eflows involve sociopolitical contestations about the control of rivers. These contestations are fundamentally about who has the power to make decisions on allocating water and what beliefs, worldviews and frameworks guide these decisions. We conclude that recognising the value-laden character of Eflows research and practice is an essential step towards recognising the value-laden character of river science and management. To achieve more equitable negotiations on deciding how rivers are managed, we argue for an explicit recognition of the political dimensions of Eflows, including a greater awareness of the cultural and ontological politics involved.

KEYWORDS: Environmental flows, ecological flows, adaptive governance, nature-culture ontologies, rivers