Submitted by guest blogger on Mon, 09/09/2013

By James Dalton of IUCN’s Water Programme, attending World Water Week.

This year’s annual World Water Week was a challenge of schedules. With more to say and with us involved in many sessions we tag-teamed presentations, speaking slots, panels and facilitation.

The week focussed on Water Cooperation – Building Partnerships, and our BRIDGE project was in full flow with our regional colleagues from Mesoamerica, Asia, and the Environmental Law Centre heavily involved. The ‘nexus’ was the word on many people’s lips as the water community struggles to work in this complex space of trade-offs between different sectoral needs and economic drivers.

For me, one of the most interesting sessions was on environmental flows. An environmental flow is the water provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits. The water needs of the ecosystems need to be specifically allocated to them, especially when there are competing users of the water, such as when a dam controls river flows upstream. We have just launched a new briefing on Environmental Flows: Managing Water Allocation and Trade-Offs.
Photo by Claire Warmenbol

There is always a session on eflows at the Water Week. This year we and a wide range of partners worked hard to make the session different. The feeling after the session was that we hit the nail on the head. A series of presentations pulled and pushed the concept of environmental flows around – and the full capacity audience then joined a number of discussions focussed on making eflows operational.

An inspiring presentation from Dipak Gyawali, former Minister of Water Resources for Nepal, and a member of our Nexus Reference Group, stirred the audience into debate. A stalwart 5% (I counted) of the audience maintained eflows should focus on the ecology of freshwater systems. This 5% felt that the allocation, livelihoods and economics aspects were not something the eflows community should be concerned with. These additional issues were beyond the eflows ‘mandate’. It was a great start to the discussion, immediately challenged by Al Duda, former Senior International Waters Adviser to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He pointed out that the GEF had not yet received a request for project finance focussed on eflows from any GEF member country. In 22 years. Clearly, something is not working.

Making eflows relevant – connecting the science to economic needs, social requirements and wider natural resource governance – is key if we want to get the science into use. But our public institutions can only manage so much. There are no simple mediating mechanisms for formal and informal institutions to collaborate on eflows. Who has the mandate to control all river allocations and manage the trade-offs between hydropower development and biofuels, for example? The institutional value systems are ALL different.

Aaron Salzburg from the US Department of State, an ex-rocket scientist knows about complexity. He opened with ‘you’ve got to be kidding me….this need to hold on to the scientific complexity is not allowing eflows to mobilise as quickly as we need’. Those advocating eflows need to better court the policy process.

The ‘sausage machine’ approach – the step-by-step procedures that institutions follow to develop policy through understanding the current situation, and then targets to aim for is standard practice. But it hides a myriad of complexity – politics, institutional cultural clashes and bargaining. The mechanics between starting to review and update water policy, and actually forming targets and hitting them is a complex political process.

As we found out through the Water and Nature Initiative you have to embrace water management as politics if you want to influence and achieve. Targets can help us align and cooperate, but more of the same won’t necessarily allow us to achieve them. For environmental flows to become a mainstream water management tool, those of us advocating eflows must enter into the sausage machine of water politics and process. If we hold eflows to account for our progress, we may be in danger of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.