The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
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?
As an editor of this Forum, I am very pleased that we already have 17 excellent comments. We would like to see the dialogue continued. To that end it would be great if we could get more detailed case studies of the process of establishing ecological flow regimes. Even more useful would be impact evaluations that examine not only the ecological impacts of establishing river flows, but their social and economic impacts, and how they affect different kinds of stakeholders. I have a concern we do not have many really good impact studies. I hope I am wrong.
Interesting that most all of the posted comments are ecology-centric, although non-ecological/non-utilitarian rationales may in some places be the dominant factor in project evaluation: notably, at the many, many waterfalls sites world-wide where upbasin diversions already have —or will soon have— severely impacted the beauty of what may well be the most emotionally engaging features of the natural landscape. In my experience, technocratic hydropower engineers don't take this issue at all seriously —until they find their projects going nowhere in the face of outraged opposition— regarding, until then, evaluating/weighing the opportunity costs of allowing over-falls flow, and the methodologies required to determine the required discharge for acceptable visual experience as unworthy of their attention. (Important exceptions exist, of course; e.g., at Niagara.) I have several PDF-based eBook projects on this topic up on my website...https://cultivateunderstanding.com/Digital_Media/UKHP_eBook_2/PDFs/waterfalls_eBooks_main_home_page.pdf but unless you follow the detailed online instructions, none of the extensive linked interactivity will work beyond the main homepage. See https://cultivateunderstanding.com/Digital_Media/browser_config_instructions.pdf
Here are two case studies from Greece:
(1) for evaluating an e-flow downstream of small hydro-power plants
(2) for taking into account climate change impacts on e-flows, downstream an important hydro-electrical plant located in the transboundary river Mesta/Nestos between Bulgaria and Greece
Both cases consider e-flows from a hydrological point of view that can serve as background for social interactions.
I agree that environmental flows should be a bottom-up process. As other contributors have already highlighted, not all initiatives are top-down and I believe modelling can be developed within a participatory process.
I was lucky to be part of a wetland restoration project in West Africa in the Diawling National Park (Mauritania) in which the eflows design was embedded in a participatory process with the main beneficiaries. The eflows were (and are still) renegotiated every year with the local users. The system has been in place since 1998 and still working. For more detail on the case study see for example these papers:
or for more detail on the participatory process:
In this case study, the managed flood releases were meant to have both social and environmental effects. Some results are here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256191197_Case_Study_4_Ecosystem_restoration_and_livelihoods_in_the_Senegal_River_Delta_Mauritania
Some conditions that may explain why it was implemented in Mauritania, is that the environmental flows were not produced directly from the main dam but from some smaller sluice gates in the reservoir embankment. The releases were therefore (partly) independent from the “hydrocracy” that you mention. The water management is also done within a National Park, which in this case gave some flexibility for the dialogue on the planned flooding of the wetland (independently of the interests of agribusiness and hydro-electricity). Another important characteristic is that the eflow design concentrates on the timing of the flood (the hydrogramme) rather than on a percentage of water.
Inspired by this experience, we have tried to use the same approach in 2 floodplains and deltas in East Africa, where dams are planned (Rufiji and Tana delta) or under construction. As a researcher I contributed to processes in which the water needs (favoured flood scenarios) of the various users were collectively discussed each year, see for example https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02626667.2013.827792
In these 2 cases, however it is much more difficult for the local users’ interests to be taken into account in the environmental flow design (bigger dams, lots of other stakeholders, electricity companies leading the process). The institutional context is less likely to carry the voice of the downstream users, who are far from the political centers. The different tools in place such as 'Water User Associations' or 'Beach Management Units' -used for the lakes- have failed to properly represent the local user interests (they are law-enforcing or tax-collecting institutions). Possibly, the local users would need to develop legal action as a pressure group to get the flood they would need for their current activities (flood recession farming, fishing, and livestock keeping).
Whilst I agree with Jeroen to an extent, but I feel that the world is now realizing the potential and role of local communities, not only to provide socio-cultural and livelihoods based inputs for E-Flows assessment exercises, but are also critical to ensure necessary buy-in from the stakeholders in an event when E-Flows regime is to be implemented.
some of the literature in regard to integration of local socio-cultural and livelihood aspects into E-Flows assessment can be reached through following web-links...
Critical feedback on the following linked blurb would be much appreciated...
...but so far the full interactive eBook for which these are the non-interactive homepages, isn’t up online yet.
Although a rough, unscripted walk-through is available here on Vimeo…
I’m trying to get these ideas out in the discourse and don’t necessarily buy into them in full.
The URL for the precursor to this conceptual framework —which is online— is here...
But once again, unless you follow the detailed online instructions, none of the extensive linked interactivity will work beyond the entry homepage for the component eBooks. See...
Are there numerous natural flows in the Netherlands, so that ecological (or environmental) flows are so important? I think for several hundreds years, there are no more any natural river or stream in this territory, and the Netherlands is beautiful and very developed country. So, undeveloped countries have to save their pristine nature, and developed ones will help them ..., how? To remain undeveloped?
According to the IWRM framework for sustainable water management at the basin scale, interbasin water transfer is the less efficient alternative, especially in transboundary river catchments, involving several water related conflicts between riparian countries. This alternative could be considered only for urgent human water supply reasons, when all others demand management solutions and water saving projects have been failed.
In view of major uncertainties due to climate change, a "good" transboundary hydro-governance (https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-78625-4 and a hydro-centric approach to Water-Energy-Food Nexus in transboundary basins (see: The Role of Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Achieving Sustainable Agriculture https://lupinepublishers.com/agriculture-journal/volume8-issue3.php) are some of the first priorities to be analyzed before considering any interbasin transfer project.
Fair enough, Prof. Ganoulis, but the dry-season FW component of the Chaophraya's discharge by the time it reaches Bangkok is close to zero: mostly because of irrigation abstractions/diversions in the double- or triple- multicropped Thai rice-growing regions above Ayodhya. Thus, DSM is likely not practicable there! Result is that groundwater overdraft and ensuing surface subsidence has radically increased greater metro Bangkok's flood risk and actual flooding during the monsoon. Costs of coping with that are increasingly astronomical! Likely problems also with sedimentation of Thailand's main shipping ports in the Chaophraya estuary. See India's controversial Farraka Barrage IBT project from the 1960s, motivated originally by non re-suspended, incoming marine sedimentation of Kolkata port, (a consequence of reduced ebb flow volume and velocity); as tectonically-induced channel migration displaced the Ganges flow from the Hooghly to Padma. Semi-analogous Jakarta subsidence and flood risk now leading Indonesian planners to consider building —de novo— an entirely new national capital in East Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49470258. Evidently not an option for Thailand.
As has been pointed out it requires a mix between stakeholders and technocrats. Relying too much on one or the other always produces poor results.
I will avoid the question mark that Dr. Potkin has put in the title of his comments because there is no sustainable solution to water problems by continuing to strengthen the Supply Side Management (SSM) by applying IBTs. Although I am not familiar with the hydrological details of the Chao Phraya River in Thailand, a similar situation has happened in Eastern Continental Greece and I am sure also in many other places around the world. The Pinios River drains the alluvial plain of Thessalia where intensive agricultural activities, such as the growth of cotton require huge quantities of irrigation water. In the summertime, the Pinios flow is almost zero and groundwater overuse for irrigation has resulted in the depletion of aquifer resources and the decline of groundwater levels by hundreds of meters. For several decades now the Greek government considers the IBT from the Acheloos River in Central-Western Greece despite the fact that the Supreme Court has overturned this alternative three times in the past. Although difficult and subject to political willingness, DSM is an important tool for respecting the natural hydrological water cycle by reducing evaporation from open channel irrigation flows, improving the efficiency of irrigation networks, controlling the hydroelectric production for the benefit of irrigation, wastewater recycling, introducing ARM (Artificial Recharge Management) activities and controlling illegal groundwater abstractions. If IBT prevails to DSM and overuse of water continues, it is certain to face after a few years the same water quantity and quality problems.
I’m a strong advocate of stakeholder empowerment in water resources planning and management, but I’m perplexed by the blog authors’ choice to single out environmental flows in their post against “exclusionary, technocratic and top-down practices”. These terms apply so much more strongly to other facets of water resource management (where, I believe, the authors also have more experience). Ecosystems are the most powerless and marginalized of water users, meriting only 5 to 10% of available water in the allocations of the “national hydrocracy”, as pointed out in the comments of Laurenceau Martin and François Molle. I can confirm that this extreme withholding of environmental water is a global phenomenon, and aquatic ecosystems and their biodiversity are severely degraded as a result. The severity of the crisis and the critical steps necessary to address it are articulated in the recently published paper by Tickner et al. “Bending the Curve of Global Freshwater Biodiversity Loss: An Emergency Recovery Plan”. Accelerating the implementation of environmental flows is Action 1 in the plan.
So while we all acknowledge the importance of local stakeholder interests, we must not forget that environmental flows are first a foremost a water allocation to sustain highly threatened and rapidly declining aquatic ecosystems, and through the healthy functions of those ecosystems to bring benefits to people. The insistence of most national hydrocracies (if I may adopt the term) to deny ecosystems 90-95% of the water they once had poses an enormous challenge to the ecohydrological science community... to investigate and understand the impacts of severely altered flow regimes on aquatic ecosystems and to recommend managed flow regimes capable of sustaining ecosystem functions. Understanding ecosystem water requirements is, fundamentally, a scientific question, and providing sufficient water for ecosystems to remain viable is the fundamental objective.
That said, as Chris Dickens points out, empowered engagement of stakeholders is part of modern, best-practice approaches to environmental flow assessment. And this engagement is both to benefit from local knowledge of aquatic ecosystem processes and also to incorporate additional social dimensions into the assessment. The 2018 definition of environmental flows highlights the importance of “human cultures, economies, sustainable livelihoods, and well-being” in the determination of environmental flows, and the SESYNC paper shared by Sue Jackson is a powerful call by the community to move away from out-dated, purely biophysical approaches to those modern approaches that more fully engage stakeholders and incorporate social dimensions.
In the two most recent environmental flow assessments I led we engaged more than 700 households to discuss local knowledge of ecosystems (especially from fishers) and to understand the multiple ways local communities rely-upon, value, and perceive the river. We also involved local water user associations in each element of our fieldwork. The experiences of one of those assessments is described in the 2017 paper led by the late Prof. Jay O’Keeffe “Stakeholder‐enhanced environmental flow assessment: The Rufiji Basin case study in Tanzania”
As a final point I encourage us all to properly distinguish between the assessment and negotiation/implementation phases of the process. In best-practice approaches to environmental flows these are clearly distinguished. Local communities and stakeholders are important to both, but in different ways. The assessment phase focuses on determination of the flow regime necessary to achieve specific ecological and social objectives. It’s equivalent to the assessment of how much water is needed to achieve a certain level of agricultural production, hydropower generation, domestic water supply, etc. This is the phase of environmental flow assessment. But when the authors refer to involving stakeholders in decisions about “allowed and prioritized uses, environmental thresholds, minimal discharges, maximum abstractions and ways of monitoring and enforcement”, this is the negotiation/implementation phase, when information about all the competing water uses (each previously assessed) is on the table and difficult decisions must be made about how to move forward.
In case you're interested, in September of this year we're offering a short course titled “Implementing Environmental Flows to Support Sustainable Water Resources Management”. The course is intended mainly for members of the hydrocracy, and you can be sure the social dimensions of environmental flows and the need to engage and empower stakeholders will feature prominently !
Thanking all the authors for their thoughtful reactions and illustrative contributions, some additional thoughts I think are important for discussion.
First, selecting the topic of “e-flows” as object of critical scrutiny does not mean that we (Jeroen and I) single out this topic out as one of the most important fields of exclusionary, technocratic and top-down practices in water governance. There are many more (!), and the others often are more visible. With the Water Alternative editors we selected this one because (as many contributions show) there seem to be a relative consensus (?) on this topic. We think this contemporary consensus may be dangerous and hides the need for re-politicization. It asks for critical reflections precisely because of its benevolent and positive representation.
Second, we certainly do not deny the huge importance of environmental flows in most contexts. Quite the contrary. Our point is that, just as in most “traditional” fields of water expertise, in many instances knowledge, decisions, and implementation privileges regarding e-flows run the risk of being captured and monopolized by the same water engineering and governance elites as happens in other water domains (irrigation, hydropower, river diversion schemes, etc). The “best practices” and “good water governance” discourses on e-flow matters, ask for fundamental political and epistemological debates, rather than participatory suffocation languages.
Third, environmental flows, therefore, also ask for debates beyond “integrating the social and natural sciences” and “practicing interdisciplinarity”. The latter are, by far, not enough. This would put, again, the engineers, ecologists, and other experts and scientists in the driving seat, taking the steering wheel. It is not a matter of scientists putting the different “best options” on the negotiation table after which “stakeholders” have to negotiate and decide. What environmental flow practices require is deep transdisciplinarity. In fact, environmental flows have existed long before the scientific concept was formulated or the national policies were implemented, even when historically not yet labelled as such. Local water cultures have invented and practiced numerous environmental flow modalities, integrating social, technical, political and symbolic domains (see also the contribution by Sue Jackson). These modes are not necessarily “better”, or “more equitable” but the point is that (in practice, despite lip-service) they are often dismissed beforehand. And equally important: their appropriateness and effectiveness cannot be evaluated by just the measuring tools and metrics of those in (scientific, governance) power.
Fourth, as in all other water domains, e-flow participation debates too often ask for inviting “local water societies to participate in decision-making”, rather than putting participation upside down: engineers, ecologists, natural and social scientists would have to understand that they are the ones being allowed to participate in existing water realities. More modesty of (natural and social) scientists is of fundamental importance in order not to follow the (god-view) errors of the traditional water science and governance fields.
Fifth, environmental flows fundamentally deal with power. They are about the distribution of a powerful element and socionatural backbone. Next, they are about the power to decide how to intervene in nature and society. And third, they are about the power to decide which environmental knowledge is legitimate, often discrediting alternative ways of thinking about and understanding water. Far beyond the often-suffocating models of “good water governance” and “best practices”, environmental flow debates need to put the fundamental power question upfront.
I fully agree with your comments (1) on "e-flows" as a more attractive topic than others related to technical issues (e.g. a top-down discussion on ecological services of a dam project), (2) that the definition of "best" alternative practices by a multidisciplinary group of "experts" cannot guaranty in practice the most effective solution, and (3) that even if local stakeholders are invited in public consultation, the decision-making process is often far from the local reality. You conclude that e-flows deal with power that is questionable if it comes from elitist models of "good" governance.
To my view, the next steps can be defined as follows: (1) better understand the meaning of "hydro-governance" https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-78625-4_4 and (2) analyze the concept of a "good" governance https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-78625-4_8. The real distribution of power is about "who" can put on the table "good" practices and "how" best practices will be realized. The "who" is about political power and the "how" is about management. Power distribution is the main question in political sciences and an ideological question between idealism (a technocratic decision making) and pragmatism (the local users know better). In my opinion a "good"governance should provide the legal framework for a compromise between the two approaches.
More than a week into this open forum, the content on this page has become rich with various viewpoints and cited works. The initial post was highly provocative, which I understand was by design and in line with the editors’ objectives for the forum. Commenters have responded in their own styles, ranging from debate to discussion. But one thing that’s clear is no one supports a world in which environmental flows are “exclusionary, technocratic and top-down practices”. In fact I believe we’ll find in the end we are more in agreement than disagreement on the substance of the discussion.
Some of us active in eflows research and practice have commented that the reality within the eflows world is not as dismissive of local stakeholders as the post suggests. We’ve presented evidence and examples of our efforts to engage and work with local stakeholders. How many of us are sitting and listening to hundreds of households, ensuring local people are with us in the field, and striving to see their interests reflected in our flow recommendations. Despite this, Rutgerd Boelens asserts (perhaps quite rightly) that this is not enough and we would do well to flip our participation views upside down, understanding that we are the ones being allowed to participate in existing water realities. We should be more modest, acknowledge that environmental flows fundamentally deal with power, and that environmental flow debates need to put the fundamental power question upfront.
With the views on the table and nearly 2 weeks remaining in the forum, what would now advance the discussion most would be for the authors (and others) to share their views on how I and other eflows experts/practitioners should specifically modify our approach. I accept the criticisms leveled about our current approach and am ready to flip my participation view upside down and be more modest. Now, what specifically do I change in my next eflows assessment? If your response is thought out properly and presented in a well-supported way, we might have a real breakthrough here.
Although this will probably lead to more questions, I reckon there is an opportunity in how we view participation, in line with Rutgerd Boelens mentioning of an upside down flip.
As you reckon, efforts and energy are invested in order to pursue the involvement of household and local actors into the possibility of making their voice being heard in the process. Although currently this should probably be acknowledged as a default step in the process for assessing and implementing Eflow, I reckon this demonstrates the weakness and/or opportunity that we are talking about.
To me it appears as if the inclusion of perceptions and participation is strongly dependent on the availability and allocation of resources, time and willingness of those who are responsible for the planning, design and management of e-flows. When the inclusion of stakeholder views is included in a research, I imagine the extensiveness to be limited by the research funds for instance. What I am trying to illustrate, is that it appears that the opportunity of participation is thereby not available for those who are willing to participate, but to those who are offered the possibility to participate, within limitations and sensitive to power dynamics.
When approaching governance systems, organisations with an upside down approach I reckon we can start to look at opening up the system for self induced participation.
The discussion has evolved in a very interesting and constructive way. We started with comments either agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition that e-flows are all too often implemented with inadequate stakeholder consultation (and to the power dynamics involved in such consultation). Michael McClain, who perhaps began as a skeptic on the premise of the article, has now challenged us all: okay, if indeed stakeholder empowerment is currently not adequate, then what, specifically and concretely, should practitioners do differently? It is one thing to say we need more participation, consultation, equity, empowerment and the like. It is quite another to lay out how to do it in a way that creates optimum levels of ecosystem services in an equitable and sustainable manner.
I would add that in most river basins, very difficult trade-offs must be made: who will lose how much in order for other people or “nature” to gain? The exchange on the French experience addresses this to some extent; but we need more advice and lessons from experience to guide future research and implementation.
I'll refer back to my postings here above on 19th-20th March, and would further unpack how apposite my in-progress eBook https://cultivateunderstanding.com/Digital_Media/Salween_Peace_Park_IBT_Hat_Gyi_tradeoff_homepages.pdf may well be to key points of this thread regarding the power relations (top-down or bottom-up) of e-flows. The largely ethnic Kayin/Karen community occupying the lower-most Salween/Thanlwin basin from just above the estuary is so adamant about self-empowerment that when they "declared" in 2018 the 5,500 km2 Salween Peace Park (SPP) https://cultivateunderstanding.com/Digital_Media/salween_peace_park.mp4 —in my view, a generally noble and well-considered initiative, except perhaps the absolute foreclosure of large-scale hydropower or even irrigation infrastructure— the national government of Burma/Myanmar in Nay Pyi Daw apparently wasn't notified of, nor invited to, the SPP formalization ceremony. Likewise, evidently, neither was the Kayin State government, based in nearby Hpa An; possibly because it may have been seen as a compromised creature of Nay Pyi Daw. Fair enough, maybe, given that the semi-secret WRM projects for the entire basin below Yunnan —including c. 18,000 MW of new hydropower installed capacity— were conceived and promulgated by elite institutions in the PRC, Thailand, and Myanmar itself: comprising a power play as "top-down, exclusionary and technocratic" as could possibly be imagined! And when the Kayin and eastern Shan State communities adamantly, and even violently, resisted their initial implementation in the mid-1990s, the Myanmar military intervened, resulting in a quasi-genocide that created tens of thousands of terrified internal/external refugees; many of whom are still very precariously situated in camps in Thailand. Yet nearly the entire territory of the prospective SPP remains occupied by military forces, largely the Tatmadaw (the Nay Pyi Daw-controlled national army) but also several ethnic minority separatist armed wings: of which many or most are partially self-supported by running illegal, unofficial, or unregulated mining and logging operations. Accordingly, "declaration" or not, the SPP is going nowhere, and its ecology is likely being trashed. And given that the Tatmadaw can and has deployed helicopter gunships and ground attack aircraft —as is indeed within their present constitutional mandate— the SPP's forcible liberation by an "anti-national" resistance is not in the cards: absent a negotiated Grand Bargain which could encompass a critical —from the Thai perspective— IBT component and a sufficient new energy (i.e., hydropower) facility to operate it.
Thank you Dr. Potkin for this pertinent case study illustrating, up to the point, the political power distribution between two extremes: the democratic debate and the military rule.
Unfortunately, authoritarian political regimes still subsist on our planet, even within those that only by name are called democratic.
Jackie King and Cate Brown
Thank you J Vos and R Boelens for initiating this discourse. We agree completely with your statement that “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”. Achieving this has been the main goal of much of our careers.
Working in developing countries in Africa and Asia, the links between people, livelihoods and ecosystem health have always been at the forefront of our work. In the mid-1990s we moved away from approaches that prescribe E-Flows and began to create an eco-social model, DRIFT, which today produces scenarios (options) of possible futures under different management/development regimes. DRIFT captures ecological understanding of how aquatic ecosystems function, and resource-economic and social understanding of the links between these ecosystems and their dependent people. We use this to predict how the ecosystem would change in response to changes in its drivers (flow/inundation regime, water quality, sediment transport and the movement of biota); how these changes could alter the ecosystem services provided; and thus how dependent social structures are likely to be affected.
Our goal was then, and is today, to provide detailed information on ecosystem integrity and linked social equity at the same level (or better) than the engineering and economic information traditionally used to make decisions on water resource development and management. DRIFT takes its place alongside hydrological, hydraulic, engineering and economic models as a vital pre-decision planning tool. Set up for each basin we have worked in, it becomes an ongoing asset for the basin as the country/ies continue to explore water management options.
We work with stakeholders such as transboundary countries, basin authorities, dam builders, conservation authorities and local river-dependent communities. Increasingly, the information provided by our and similar models has become part of the full suite of information required by funders and considered by governments and their stakeholders. Recent projects with international funding are starting to reflect this. An existing EU project for the Okavango Basin in southern Africa, for instance, requires looking beyond the traditional economic model to include indirect benefits, existence value of the whole river system and comparisons of the value of water for different uses.
A distinction needs to be made between scientists, like us, who provide the technical information, and those who make decisions using it. Despite the claim of Vos and Boelens, we feel we are neutral, capturing knowledge and concerns, and providing predictions in a transparent and accessible form. We have long understood that we cannot be both technical advisors and a lobby group, and have tried to work carefully and responsibly. Our predictions of change spell out the implications for a range of stakeholders from international treaties to local households and cultures, and for a range of ecosystem and social attributes. We strive to ensure these outputs are aired widely through the relevant countries and river basins, so that as many people as possible are aware of what could happen to their river and livelihoods, and what benefits and costs may arise from different forms of development and management.
The second group of people are those who use our outputs, and this is where strong stakeholder representation is vital. We provide information that, before the advent of these sorts of E-Flows assessments, was not available to stakeholders, decision makers and governments. If social equity is to take its rightful place, then society in its many forms has to mobilise to use it, as well as the engineering and economic information, negotiating with governments for the future that is wished for.
In the end the onus is on governments to balance all of these aspirations and make a decision, hopefully in a fair and transparent way, and on stakeholders to hold them accountable. Then the far more challenging phase begins – implementation, monitoring and adaptive management. The scientists who did the E-Flows assessment can help with the technical aspects of this, but the rest is down to political and social will.
Great to see these well-thought comments and rightful critiques. The ‘how to do it’ question is on the table. For that, I’d like to add some very modest, additional thoughts. When we discuss ‘dissensus’ in the field of environmental flow programs, I would argue that ‘setting participation upside down’ (see also Michael Mclain’s fine reaction) also asks for questioning other (often-taken-for-granted) key notions. There are many. Obviously there is the issue of ‘equality’ in environmental flow programs (which may constitute another implicit trap, since it is necessarily a referential notion: equal to what? equal to whom? Critical scrutiny of water science and development would quickly point at the whiteness, masculinity, and class biases of our water models and mirrors). Others would prefer to talk about ‘equity’ (which, being the context-particular, cultural-political construct of ‘fairness’ or ‘acceptability’ asks for making explicit ‘whose notions of equity’ in environmental flow projects prevail, how and why).
But next to many other mainstays that ask for healthy dissensus and critical scrutiny in environmental flow debates, maybe 2 key issues deserve extra attention when it comes to thinking about and acting upon the (anti-hegemonic) ‘how’ question. First, the notion of ‘expert’ and ‘expert knowledge’ : how can we break open this notion, not reserving it upfront for water scientists and practitioners? What would it imply in practice when riverine families, women, indigenous water users, or activist movements, equally would be recognized as potential experts from the start, and not only as ‘stakeholders’ when scientists have done their research and present the different options and scenarios to stakeholder platforms or policy-makers. This raises issues of the equal footing of alternative or counter-epistemologies in riverine development. The debate of legitimate expertise, therefore, is crucial to any environmental flow project, and needs to go far beyond the restricted circles of academia, water development institutes and governments.
Related is the fundamental need to discuss the metrics of environmental sustainability. In whose terms, according to which standards, ontologies and epistemologies, the ‘eflow problems and solutions’ are discussed and operationalized? How can the environmental flow debates (in particular, in times of proclaimed Water Crisis, and SDGs that promote urgent, universal solutions) avoid the danger of imposing one common metric, that is, commensurating dominant knowledge frames? What if certain notions of ‘environment’, ‘river’, ‘water’ and ‘ ‘development’ are incommensurable, and multi-criteria analysis tools can only silence the divergences to the benefit of scientific expert or government schemes?
These issues, therefore, I think are basic to the practical questions of ‘ how to do it’ : depending on contexts, cultures and histories, how can academics and practitioners horizontally engage with water user collectives and local forms of environmental governance (maybe even grassroots movements, or activist networks), or other forms of commons and (incipient) ‘commoning’ processes, to work on the mutual co-creation of river knowledge and environmental flow practices.
Fundamentally, more than just platforms for shared decision-making, I’d argue that this involves creating spaces where forms of mutual, open and harsh critique towards each other can flourish, to be able to build honest knowledge and horizontal action partnerships. How can we (researchers and practitioners) make sure that local water knowledge co-creation partners are (physically, economically and politically) able/enabled to protest against what we say about them, about their river environments, and about our metrics and proposals for improvement. And vice versa, how can we horizontally discuss and challenge their notions and practices. This asks for abandoning pre-determined sustainability metrics, questioning ‘best practices’ rationalities, and thinking through creative knowledge co-creation and interactive environmental flow designs. These obviously depend on local contexts’ impediments and opportunities. In response to Michael McClain and Doug Merrey, it would be highly interesting to gather counter-hegemonic environmental flow knowledge and action experiences. Maybe :
• User-to-user based environmental governance capacity-strengthening experiments?
• River-movement based (or protest-driven) environmental flow initiatives?
• Federative riverine-communities’ led proposals in which engaged academics and practitioners join rather than lead? (user-directed rive investigation and action).
• Transdisciplinary river enlivening programs that explicitly invert the position and role of ‘experts’, reformulate what it means to have ‘legitimate environmental expertise’ and question the established ‘multi-criteria analyses’ ? In the same line: E-flow assessment initiatives that take rivers-as-experienced as the starting point for critical engagement?
• Environmental flow programs that explicitly start from antagonisms, dissensus and contradictions rather than from ‘mutually agreed’ SDGs and the need for overall agreement? (See the many environmental justice -based riverine initiatives that challenge “win-win” and ask for radical change in terms of socio-economic redistribution, cultural recognition and political participation in river development)
• Or even Rights-of-Nature action proposals (ecological justice rather than environmental justice) that involve not just humans but also rivers as legal and moral subjects of rights?
As has also become clear from the many valuable posts to this discussion, I think there is not one unique method for establishing e-flows in a bottom-up way. Each river basin, each country, each water-related problematic, and each power constellation of stakeholders is different. However, some examples might help to clarify the sort of processes that could lead to more inclusive establishment of e-flows. I do not claim these examples show perfect bottom-up practices, nor that these examples should - or can - be copied without adaptation to other cases. They serve to illustrate the type of actions possible for bottom-up claimed e-flows over a wide range of very different conditions. Below some illustrations from Thailand, Spain and The Netherlands.
Thailand: several dams in the Mun River – a tributary of the Mekong River - obstruct the temporary migration of fish. The main purpose of the Pak Mun Dam, finished in 1994, and the Rasi Salai Dam, finished in 1998, is the generation of hydropower. Local fisher communities were deprived from their livelihoods because of declining fish stocks in the river. They protested for many years against the dams and demanded the opening of the gates to allow the fish to migrate. With the help of national and international NGOs they organized protest marches in the capital Bangkok, and at the dam site. In 2000 some three thousand fishers occupied the dam site with support of the national NGO Assembly of the Poor and backed by a study of the World Commission on Dams. In 2002, after years of protests, the government decided to open the gates of the dams: in 2002-2003 for one year, and after that each year for several months during the rainy season. Scientific research has shown the subsequent recovery of the fish stocks, although the e-flow is under threat (see: Kiguchi, 2016 and Baird et al., 2020).
Spain: In Southern Spain the government planned to build a dam in the Rio Grande near Malaga (Guadalhorce river basin). The purpose was to divert water to the coast, mainly for the tourist sector. Local farmer and environmental organizations protested against the plans for the dam. In 2003, this grassroots alliance created the Cerro Blanco Anti-Dam Platform, which got support from the local ecological activists’ organization, the Jara Association. This NGO that had studied and educated on local ecology for many years, together with the irrigator communities that were mainly concerned with losing their livelihood sources, successfully protested against the dam. However, the government later revived the project quietly. In 2006, the Cerro Blanco project was approved by the Ministry of Environment by conveniently re-naming it as “an azud” (the local Arab name for a small dam) while planning pipelines to divert most of the water from the Río Grande to the city. This time, the Jara Association provided the leadership and organized large social mobilization against the plan. It included many actors such as local school teachers, local businesses, NGOs, and local politicians, and together they formed the network Coordinator in Defence of the Rio Grande River. The platform organized a multitude of creative activities, and mobilized the valley’s communities to protest on the streets of Malaga. The success of this movement lied in making several local, national and global alliances during its development. The Coordinator created links to the supportive networks at increasingly broader scales. First, it networked with many local foundations and initiatives, for example, the Andalusian branch of the Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua (FNCA, New Water Culture), and later also with Greenpeace. The platform also strategically used the contents and representatives of the European Framework Directive to defend the cause of living rivers and ecological flows. At the same time, JARA had to navigate carefully among the activist organizations because involving foundations that were seen as “too radical” by the local villagers or “too environmentalist” by the farmers could weaken the local platform’s coherence and force. Confronted with the large multi-actor and multi-scalar opposition network, the government had to withdraw the plans, and instead it made an alternative design taking the water from a downstream weir– this would leave the river untouched. Meanwhile, the Coordinator continued to enlarge its alliance also with local, national and international academic partners to carry out social and ecological studies that may defend (and “scientifically express”) the importance of the Rio Grande living flow regime for the conservation of valley’s ecological environment and social communities. In the following years, these academic and societal network partners, in a multi-scalar alliance, proved to be extremely important whenever (as in 2009 and 2017) the government revived the construction plans of the dam on the Rio Grande river. The challenge is not yet over. (text based on Shah et al., 2019 . See also: Poma and Gravante, 2015 and Duarte-Abadía et al., 2019 )
The Netherlands. The Netherlands shows an annual surplus in precipitation, nevertheless rivers are regulated to: store water to mitigate periodic drought, enable rivers’ navigation, allocate water flow to preferred water bodies, prevent saltwater intrusion, and control flooding. Large pumping stations are installed to drain polders that have water levels below sea level. The dams, sluices, storm surges, many small barriers in tributaries, and pumping stations prevent the free flowing of rivers. These barriers and pumping stations severally hinder fish migration. Surface water is also contaminated by point sources (mainly from industry) and disperse contamination (mainly from agriculture). National water governance and the regional water authorities (water boards) are in charge to elaborate 15-year plans and implement them to increase water quality according to the EU Water Framework Directive. The water quality has indeed improved, but N and P concentrations are still too high, and industries continue to discharge large amounts of chemicals into the rivers. Several local initiatives exist that fight against contamination by industries and remove barriers in tributaries to allow for fish migration. An example of a grassroots organizations is the local environmental citizens organization Stichting Het Wantij that has fought for over a decade to protect the river and landscape of Het Wantij (part of the Natural Park Biesbosch) against new infrastructure (bridges, roads), water pollution by large chemical industries and felling of trees, and promoting ecological friendly management of the riverbanks. The NGO has successfully filed court cases against the local government to make them comply with environmental legislation (http://www.hetwantij.com). Another initiative to draw attention to the pollution of rivers in the Netherlands is that of the “Drinkable Rivers” by Li An Phoa (https://drinkablerivers.org/). An example on e-flow restoration is the struggle of local individuals and organisations to open the Haringvliet sluices. From 1970 onwards, these sluices have been closed to prevent saltwater intrusion. However, the closed sluices inhibit fish migration. After long years of putting pressure by individuals and organisations the sluices are now opened periodically to allow for fish migration (see: Buitenhuis and Dieperink, 2019)
On the same note: in Europe almost 5000 barriers in rivers have been removed as result of pressure by grassroots organisations. The website of Dam Removal Europe has an overview map of the barriers (or dams as they call them) that have been removed, see: https://damremoval.eu/
These are some examples of grassroots actions to restore or maintain e-flows. The examples show the diversity of conditions and coalitions. In some cases, the government policies were opposed, in others they were mobilized. The questions raised in Rutgerd Boelens’ post on power relations, the question of “who is the expert”, and “who sets the goals for e-flows”, are very relevant when scrutinising the above examples. We can learn from them and see how they differ from policy-induced e-flows.
Thanks to Jeroen and Rutgerd for a great post.
I am beginning to look at this politically and to veer towards advocating nFlows as the solution (at least for the Ganga between Nepal, India and Bangladesh) to both eFlow and sFlow. Let me explain.
eFlows wake up all the 9 passions (anger, disgust, despair etc.) in us environmentalists. However, the reality is that eFlow has absolutely NO political traction around here, since neither our numerical voting strength nor our collective moral angst counts for much in this basin of half a billion mostly poor eking out subsistence living in primarily an informal economy. Good politicians pat our backs politely but do nothing, indeed often do just the opposite; bad politicians calls us terrible names, "anti-developmental" being the politically most damaging and marginalizing in the Global South.
sFlows (spiritual flows) are a different matter. Ganga and its tributaries (much like the Mekong which I learnt is a variant of Ma Ganga -Mae Khongkha- or Mother Ganga in ancient Khmer) are "civilizational" rivers that hold deep spiritual meaning. So much so that the Indian government is forced to quietly release water from the Tehri storage dam during the massive Kumbh Mela to allow enough water at Allahabad for a hundred million people to bathe at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna. They would hardly think of doing that to maintain eFlow!! Despite this political traction of sFlow, we in South Asia call our rivers "mother" but treat her not just as a nappy changer but verily nappy itself! See a good book explaining this perplexing irony:
Now nFlows are a different matter (nFlows = navigation flows) from these two. India government has passed an act requiring 111 rivers in India to be navigable, Ganga and Brahmaputra being #1 and #2 on the list. The problem is that Ganga has a large flow only in the average with the difference between flood season versus dry season flows differing by twenty or more times. Shallow depth and sandbars make it impossible for barges to move during the almost eight dry months of the year. It is also in this season that there is the highest demand for irrigation waters. Moreover, South Asian hydrocracies (India's being the most "hydrocratic" godfather of them all!) are unfortunately dominated by irrigation and civil engineering construction interests where the de facto policy is "not a drop to be wasted to the sea!" And it goes completely counter to nFlow requirements.
The saving grace here is good old economics: riverine transport of bulk goods is many, many times cheaper than by road or rail. And if India hopes to become an economic super power competing with China, she has to develop riverine transport much as Europe and North America have done. In this, the real fight over the pathway of river water development shifts away from transboundary issues between Nepal and Bangladesh to within India itself: the fight between its irrigation versus commercial interests. I have discussed this in my regular, alternative fortnightly, deliberately "nasty" column:
If nFlows should take the driver's seat in policy formulation, they would subsume under them eFlows as the volume of nFlows is far greater than the token 3-10% or whatever legislated (but more violated in practice than followed) eFlows might be. And sFlows would benefit too, because if you want bargemen plying their boats in the river, Ganga or the Yamuna cannot be mere sewerage back-flows that they currently are but have to see only treated water flowing in to the river.
We can only hope: there is a generational fight up in the years ahead if an alliance of environmentalists and commercial interests (i.e. corporate social responsibility) can be cobbled up and made effective.
Maybe I could contribute a few words to the discussion, questioning the totality of the original contention that E-Flows are necessarily "exclusionary, technocratic and top-down practices" while adding some nuance to the comments above by Jeroen on the case of Thailand. Let me deal with that first. The example given of the Mun River is not a good one and actually, the process was extremely top-down, exclusionary and technocratic in the way it was designed and implemented. Plus it lasted only a couple of years, and the regime and period of opening and closing the dam gates was decided far away in Bangkok, with minimal local buy in or influence over.
A better example for Thailand would have been the Nam Songkhram River in the upper Northeast region and another tributary of the Mekong. I worked there for several years on an IUCN wetlands conservation project from 2004-07 (Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Programme) and have studied it on and off ever since. The project implemented an E-Flows sub-project in 2006-07 that was consciously and deliberately bottom-up, non-exclusionary, inter-disciplinary and only semi-technocratic in approach. It brought on board voices and knowledge from local resource users via the Tai Baan Research Network which had already been established by the MWBP and Thai civil society groups, and mixed these with a diverse group of mostly Thai "experts" (state and non-state) with one internationally-recognised foreign E-Flows "expert" involved (who tended towards the technocratic approach). There were a number of tensions between the diverse actors involved, but it did kind of work up to a point, although had very little influence with the Thai state hydrocracies, namely the Royal Irrigation Dept and the Dept of Water Resources, who were both looking to dam, regulate and generally hydraulically control the river to the utmost degree they could, and since the demise of the project, effectively have. The river has now been dammed and damned, like much of the Mekong system. Like the Tonle Sap river in Cambodia, the flow situation was greatly complicated by reverse seasonal flows in the lower reaches and a complex floodplain ecosystem which few "experts", from whatever discipline, could quite get their heads around in a comprehensive and holistic manner. The process of conducting the E-Flows process together in the field, often alongside local villagers, helped the single disciplinarians to understand a bit more about the other disciplines and the wider ecosystem values of the floodplain system more generally. This feature was deliberately designed into the process by myself and colleagues, against some resistance from outside, I should add.
The process and lessons learned can be found in the project document below on the Stockholm Environment Institute website.
The wider lessons of this particular E-Flows project on the Nam Songkhram can be compared to others implemented in the Mekong region around the same time, which were far more technocratic, top-down, state-directed and exclusionary of local voices, in a chapter of an edited book volume, as noted below. Indeed, our project was in no small part a reaction to the top-down approach taken by the Mekong River Commission's IBFM project, that cost a small fortune to implement, but was never published or even released, due to the internal politics of the MRC and concerns by the member country's that it might compromise their individual sovereign and combined plans to pursue a vigorous "hydraulic mission".
Lazarus, K., Blake, D.J.H., Dore, J., Sukraroek, W., and Hall, D.S. 2012. Negotiating Flows in the Mekong. In: Ojendal, J., Hansson, S., and Hellberg, S. (Eds) Politics and Development in a Transboundary Watershed: The Case of the Lower Mekong Basin. Springer, London.
Hope this has put some context about an E-Flows approach that was an exception to the norm from over a decade ago, but had little hope of succeeding or having greater influence, due to the wider socio-political context of Thailand and the Mekong Basin nations in general. Hence, one has to critically consider to what extent E-Flows, like IWRM, IMT, PIM and other "nirvana concepts dreamed up in the meeting rooms and studies of Western universities and research agencies, are just normative visions that rarely stand the test of real politik when applied to the river basins of Asia and elsewhere?
And if anyone is wondering, the Tai Baan Research Network likewise didn't survive the withdrawal of donor support, following on from the demise of the MWBP, when the Netherlands govt and GEF pulled the plug on funding 2 years into a 5 years project, as apparently "biodiversity conservation" was less appealing to the donors than a "climate change" couched project. There were, of course, a host of other regional and national political reasons why the project was axed early.
After reading this very interesting exchange about some of the main constraints for the succesful implementation of eflows worldwide, I would like to incorporate some further insights from the Spanish experience in the subject.
As most of you already know, Spain is one of the most largely river-regulated countries in the global sphere, due to different physical, historical and socio-economic reasons. During the last two decades, harsh discussions have arisen between water authorities, water end-users and conservationists about the best manners to update the design and release of eflows in all types of water courses: perennial, temporary and ephemeral rivers, lakes and wetlands, and transitional waters.
The challenge was really huge considering some key aspects: i. a common and homogeneous -but still flexible- eflow approach was required for the entire river network, if better results were to be reached; ii. there was no sound understanding of flow-ecology-society relationships in almost all kind of water bodies; iii. previous experiences in the issue were merely based on fixed thresholds, which provided no actual info for the new eflow regimes; iv. the question of how making stakeholders part of the new approach was difficult to address, since old inertial ideas on water planning and management were still rooted in many water sectors.
With that aim, and after a thorny debate, new legal procedures were legally passed in 2007 and 2008, setting the scene for an ameliorated focus on eflows. The main changes were:
i. eflow regimes had to be defined by RBMPs in all water bodies of the country,
ii. in at least 10% of water bodies the definition of eflows had to be based on a combined application of detailed hydrological and habitat simulation methods
iii. eflow implementation had to contribute to the good ecological status of natural WBs, or to the GEP of HMWBs, and their effect had to be monitored
iv. procedures were approved for the above types of water bodies (perennial, ephemeral, stagnant, transitional)
v. eflow regimes had to include four different components: variable minimum flows, variable maximum flows, maximum rates of change d/s of HEPPs, and controlled floods; thus, application of fixed thresholds was legally banned from that time on
And which was the actual effect of those legal changes? Significant but still insufficient achievements have been fulfilled following the early inception of the aforementioned procedure in the 2009 RBMPs. The third RBMPs (2021-2027) will already define eflows for the vast majority of the Spanish water bodies, but the detailed assessments will still only reach that 10% of the entire range of WB (i.e., over 400 from a total amount of over 4,000). Methodologies used for the assessment still involve a wide number of uncertainties (which you already know, both concerning the statistical analysis of flow series and the 1D or 2D modelling of flow suitability for aquatic species). Habitat simulation is still strictly based on fish species; with that aim, suitability functions were constructed for almost the entire set of native river fishes, but those functions should incorporate a wider number of empirical observations. According to water decrees, also the water needs of riparian plant stands had to be considered during the biological simulation, but we have only been able to analyse the requirements of a limited number of plant communities and guilds up to this date, and they have not yet been included in the eflow analyses. Also methodological limitations remain for other less-known water bodies. But maybe the main controversial aspect is the way in which the legal eflow procedures have been applied because, in many cases, the flexibility of the method have been used, during the concertation phase with water-users, to define very low eflow values. And this fact have limited, by far, the positive effect of the released flow regimes. As I previously mentioned, the reaction of water end-users to a potential increment of eflows was extremely hard, and frequently conducted through judicial processes, which have hampered the release of efficient eflows. In many rivers, water rights reach a timespan of 75 years, which have created an atmosphere of utmost control of river flows by certain economic sectors.
In brief, from my perspective, we have the present achievements and failures regarding eflow implementation:
i. despite strong resistance, most water users have accepted that eflow patterns must include some temporal variability, and this is bit by bit incorporated to eflow regimes. Variability is on many occasions too weak, but it was finally considered, after hard fight
ii. requirements of native fishes (and slowly, of riparian plants) have been introduced in eflow design. They must be better analysed, but are already inside the calculations
iii. monitoring have began to be implemented. If COVID-19 do not entirely alter our budgets (let´s see what happens!), this year a multi-annual monitoring of eflow effects will be initiated in tens of water bodies, which will include many different biological, physico-chemical and hydromorphological indicators. This would give us clues to better understand and integer the entire range of requirements of the river system
iv. release of controlled floods from dams have now began. Already 6 different pilot experiences have been fulfilled up to this moment. They are aimed at regenerating regulated riverbeds, improving sediment transport, avoiding excessive plant colonization of riverbeds, and improving habitat quality. Some of these experiences have been discussed in the following paper:
Magdaleno, F. "Experimental floods: A new era for Spanish and Mediterranean rivers?." Environmental Science & Policy 75 (2017): 10-18.
v. one of this recent experiences of controlled floods has, and this is quite relevant, been combined with the reintroduction of sediments, in a combined maneuver from one large dam in Catalonia. This opens the gate to the so-much dreamed link of eflows and sediment dynamics, as discussed in:
De Jalón, Diego García, Martina Bussettini, Massimo Rinaldi, Gordon Grant, Nikolai Friberg, Ian G. Cowx, Fernando Magdaleno, and Tom Buijse. "Linking environmental flows to sediment dynamics." Water Policy 19, no. 2 (2017): 358-375.
Main limitations and failures
i. we are far from releasing eflows which are really functional flows. Methodological limitations, but more particularly, constraints imposed by stakeholders have deeply lowered eflow values. This makes the effect of eflows quite uncertain, and in many cases, very shallow
ii. we need sound advances on eflow procedures regarding temporary rivers, wetlands and transitional waters
iii. lack of monitoring during the last decades makes eflow design weaker, and the own eflows of difficult "sale" to end-users, politicians and judges
iv. society is far from knowing about eflows, and how much they could mean for environmental functions and for ecosystem services. We, scientist and managers, have a big task with explaining eflows to people, and making them aware of their relevance. Cultural flows are still far from reaching RBMPs, but we need them now!:
Magdaleno, F. (2018). Flows, ecology and people: is there room for cultural demands in the assessment of environmental flows?. Water Science and Technology, 77(7), 1777-1781.
v. and of course, as many of you already said, the role of stakeholders should much be better addressed to make them part of the solution, and not only part of the problem
I will be happy to go on reading your very informative contributions. I hope to have offered some new insights about the way we are managing things in Spain, with all its many lights and shadows.
Have a nice week, despite the difficult confinement we are living!
Thank you to the editors of this exchange and to all who have participated. I hope this note finds you and your families well, in this unprecedented moment.
We write as laypeople who have roots in both the Colorado River Basin, and in the Terraba Basin, in the south of Costa Rica, where we now live. Almost twenty years ago, our beloved parents, along with community members, frustrated by rivers that were drying--almost dry, now--due in part to a subsidiary of Del Monte pineapple taking unquestioned amounts of water, asked, Why is it possible to dry rivers entirely, with no thought to future generations? Surrounded by data, in their quest to understand their lives next to a river they love, they simply wanted to ask this question and try to tell a story. Together with them, we (because we have a computer) helped carried this question to water experts inside of Costa Rica, and environmental NGOs. But given that pineapple was then and now is even more central to the economy, it was understandably hard for people within the country to participate in this inquiry openly and without funding, without the very real possibility of coming under pressure. Relative silence during a few years led us to read about e-flows and water policy, and reading led us to experts outside the country, as well, including Brian Richter and Jackie King.
The short of this story is that for twenty years, they, and others--including, now, experts in Costa Rica--have somehow taken time to educate, empower and connect not only us, but many other water champions around the world who came to fall in love with and feel at home in the increasingly holistic, poetic, capacious science of e-flows. They somehow take time from full lives to answer letters and return calls. (For six years, moved in particular by the time Jackie invested in so many laypeople, a group nominated her for last year's Stockholm Water Prize--challenging to even help write, outside the realm of expertise!)
I'm sharing this story in part from the shelter of the coronavirus's mandated home-seclusion, because all of you no doubt are also every day nurturing and involving laypeople in your e-flows work. Investing time informally in people who reach out to you is far more profound than may at first seem.
That the science is also in part thankfully evolving, through the concept of Development Space, to help society at the basin-level prepare triple bottom-line scenarios resultant altering ecosystems, matters deeply in the necessary quest to transcend data. Often, as you know, data can obscure the simple, timely, often controversial questions that need to be asked and stories that need to be told. (At the end of this letter, I'll try to share materials about Development Space, as well as about some of the amazing e-flows work Anny Chavez and colleagues through UNESCO are pioneering in Central America.) The "simple" question laypeople here in the Terraba basin are trying to ask is, How viable, in a time of rapid climate change and rivers run dry, is the current export economy, with emphasis on pineapple? Laypeople are trying to raise the profile of Development Space, in a non-violent process of inquiry including shining light on how a culture of de-watered rivers, pineapple, cattle and sugarcane, is translating into youth wanting fast cash--and joining the cartels. The cost of addiction, depression, crime and incarceration, therefore, should be included in e-flows analyses of de-watered rivers, contaminated aquifers, and the increasingly large security and mental health industry around the world invited to the table!
Last, thinking through concrete next steps about creating parity in e-flows science, would be very powerful to learn from the amazing example of the Green New Deal, bolstered and proposed by a young woman in the US, AOC, who two years ago was working as a waitress. She was educated, empowered and connected to other young leaders through a few agencies (Justice Democrats; Sunrise Movement; others) looking to shift the political landscape in the US. It's been an amazing process to witness. This model could be applied to water champions?
Un fuerte abrazo, e-flows community, and with warmest regards,
Madeline Kiser and Oscar Beita
Living Rivers Movement, Costa Rica
All--here are the documents mentioned:
1. Development Space and Sustainability Boundaries
2. UNESCO e-flows toolkit, Central America https://es.unesco.org/node/275904
3. Water Justice and Justice Democrats
Dear contributors and readers of the Water Dissensus,
Today this discussion of e-flows will close. It has been the first thematic discussion on the Water Alternatives Forum, and we are very satisfied with the engaged, substantive and fruitful discussion. A lot of interesting contributions have been made, bringing forward many good examples, including links to further reading. We learned a lot from the insights and cases presented. We also feel that several points raised merit more and deeper discussion (like the comment by Tarik on the supposed “luxury” of e-flows in rich countries, versus the need to harnessing water for development in poor countries), and surely we will have those discussions somewhere in the near future (in this platform or elsewhere).
For now, we would like to thank all authors of comments, and of course also the organisers of the Dissensus: Francois Molle and Douglas Merrey.
We look very much forward to the discussion of next themes in the Water Dissensus!
Take care and stay healthy!
Rutgerd Boelens and Jeroen Vos
This discussion of e-flows is now closed. But stay tuned for the next posting on which we will invite your comments.