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)