19. Freshwater Systems: Managing Flows for People and Nature

Freshwater systems cover less than 1% of the Earth's surface yet they are essential to support life. Water quality supports the health of people and ecosystems. Rivers and groundwater need a holistic landscape-scale approach to address pressures on upstream and downstream resources, giving recognition to the importance of the aesthetic, religious, historical, and archaeological values water contributes to a nation's heritage.

Freshwater habitats provide a home for 126,000 species, or 7%, of the estimated 1.8 million described species including a quarter of the estimated 60,000 vertebrates (Balian et al., 2008). They also have economic value. According to one estimate, the value of the goods and services provided by the world's wetlands is US$ 70 billion per year (Schuyt and Brander, 2004).

Both biodiversity and human well-being are affected by changes to freshwater. On average freshwater species populations were reduced by half between 1970 and 2005, a sharper decline than for other biomes (World Water Assessment Programme, 2009). The Red List Index for birds living in freshwater habitats shows one of the most serious declines for all habitats, second only to marine habitats (Butchart et al., 2004). A global Red List assessment for freshwater crabs reported that, of species for which enough data were available to carry out an assessment, 32% were threatened (Cumberlidge et al., 2009). Reviews of the status of freshwater fishes across particular regions report figures ranging from 11% threatened in southern Africa (Darwall et al., 2008) to 56% of endemic Mediterranean freshwater fishes being threatened (Smith and Darwall, 2006).

More than 60% of the largest 227 rivers are fragmented by dams, diversions or canals (Revenga et al., 2000) leading to widespread degradation of freshwater ecosystems. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices, pollution, invasive species and climate change are additional major concerns for most freshwater systems. Darwall et al., (2008) report that 85% of threatened fish in southern Africa, 55% of threatened freshwater fish in Europe, and just under 45% of threatened freshwater fish in Madagascar are affected by invasive species. In the latter case, this is largely the result of implementation of a plan to re-establish local fisheries through the introduction of 24 nonnative fish species (Benstead et al., 2003). Climate change will cause further vulnerability and result in further impacts on freshwater systems. Finally, in many countries water policies and laws are undergoing reform and need to be implemented effectively to conserve water resources.

In a world with diminishing access to water, solving conservation challenges requires solutions that combine the needs of both people and nature. The Vision for Water and Nature (2000) promotes an ecosystem approach to applying integrated water resources management (IWRM), including through improving water governance, empowering stakeholders, building knowledge and valuing water resources.

IUCN has prepared a series of toolkits to support the implementation of sound water resource management to strengthen water security, including Change, Flow, Value, Pay, Share and Rule. They are all accessible online, and are available in several languages, at: http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/water/wp_resources/wp_resources_toolkits/.


People need a minimum of 20 litres of water a day to drink, bathe, and maintain basic hygiene (UN Water, 2007). Imagine what it is like to survive on one-quarter of that amount, 5 litres a day – the amount people were living on during the East African drought (2005–2006). The UN states that by 2025 two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with a severe lack of water afflicting the lives and livelihoods of 1.8 billion people (UN Water, 2007).

The challenges we face relate both to quantity and quality of water. The 2006 Global International Waters Assessment confirmed that shortages of freshwater were a problem in most parts of the world but especially in sub-Saharan Africa where freshwater shortages affect nine of 19 freshwater systems assessed by the Global International Waters Assessment and pollution (including transboundary pollution) affects five systems. By 2025, many southern regions of the world are projected to face water scarcity (see Figure 19.1). However, water scarcity is not consistent across time and space. Physical water scarcity occurs when physical access is limited, and thus water resources' development is approaching or has exceeded sustainable limits. Economic water scarcity exists when the population does not have the human, institutional and economic capital to access water even though water in nature is available locally to meet human demands. Economic water scarcity resulting from unequal distribution of resources has many causes including political and ethnic conflict. Much of sub-Saharan Africa suffers from the effects of this type of water scarcity (Comprehensive Assessment of Water in Agriculture, 2007).

The water crisis stems from rising demand, falling quality and therefore dwindling per capita availability. Distribution and management are also issues. The difference in water reliability between Japan and Cambodia – which have annually about the same average rainfall of 160cm a year – is that Japan has been able to create infrastructure to harness and store water. In countries with heavy rainfall, such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, much of the monsoon precipitation is not captured for productive use and runs off into the ocean.

While the minimum water needed may be 20 litres per day, the average daily use in the USA and European countries is 200–600 litres per day (UN Water, 2007). Managing your own water consumption might be as easy as turning off the tap while brushing your teeth. One tool that can be used to determine water consumption is the water footprint tool (Box 19.1).The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. The water footprint tool and other approaches can be used as tools to implement IWRM.

Figure 19.1 Projected water scarcity in 2025 (IWMI, 2009)


IWRM is “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” (GWP, 2009). It integrates landscapescale management that acts on a scale broad enough to recognize the role of all critical influencing factors and stakeholders that shape land-use decisions. IWRM is based on the Dublin Principles (GWP, 2000), namely:

Principle I: Water as a finite and vulnerable resource

Principle II: Participatory approach

Principle III: The important role of women

Principle IV: Water as an economic good

IUCN's Members, in Resolution 4.063 (The new Water Culture – integrated water resources management) have urged governments to adopt IWRM and support frameworks for its implementation.

The key question when managing water allocations is “How can we ensure there is enough water for nature?” This can be answered by applying environmental flows. Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems (Brisbane Declaration, 2007). Assessments are undertaken to determine the amount of flow needed to maintain a healthy river and support vital ecosystem services. This information is used to make informed decisions about allocation of water to all sectors including the environment.

Box 19.1 Walking on water: how big is your water footprint?

While many of us have heard of our carbon footprint, few are aware that we also leave a water footprint. You can calculate how much water your daily habits require – be it showering, cooking, how much water went into your food, or the type of electricity you use. Visit the website of the Water Footprint network to learn more:


To increase integration of environmental flows into policy and practice for water management, communication, learning and demonstration of the benefits of flows for people and nature are needed. The Environmental Flows Network (www.eflownet.org) is a central reference point for information on flows and also is a tool to share experiences, develop the concept and link to a broad, cross-sectoral audience.

IUCN supports application of environmental flows to mitigate the effects of infrastructure development on rivers, including dams and large-scale irrigation. Environmental flows are implemented by changing the operation of infrastructure in ways that restore the quantity, quality and seasonal rhythm of river flows in order to sustain downstream ecosystems and the services they provide to people. Application of environmental flows is through negotiation of water allocations by stakeholders, which encourages the integration of the needs of both people and nature in decisions about water resources management. Strengthening support for application of environmental flows in policy and law drives development of the knowledge, capacities and institutions needed to implement IWRM.


Effective water management must be supported by policies and laws that enable transparent definition of rights, roles and responsibilities, including sufficient allocation of water to sustain healthy ecosystems. Successful implementation of well-structured water policies and laws also requires the necessary institutions for that implementation as well as an enabling environment that is characterized by transparency, certainty, accountability and lack of corruption.

At an international level this was recognized at the UN 2000 Millennium Assembly, which agreed “to stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources, by developing water management strategies at the regional, national and local levels, which promote both equitable access and adequate supplies”. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 Heads of State agreed a specific target to prepare Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and water efficiency plans by 2005 – a target that was not met.

Water governance continues to be a major challenge in many countries, for example because of lack of coherence among sectors and conflicting policies and laws made at different times by different administrations and interest groups. Reforming national policies and laws into a cohesive package is a difficult and resource-consuming task, but countries that have tackled it have found that their downstream implementation plans go more smoothly. For example Brazil has undertaken a lengthy reform of its water governance structure which, as a result of the systematic reorganization of policy, law and institutions, led to a substantial improvement of its water management scheme. In addition, Iza and Stein (2009) suggest that water governance reforms that reduce poverty and make economies more resilient should be based on principles of equity and sustainability. For example, South Africa has implemented ambitious water reforms over the last decade. The National Water Act guarantees a “water reserve” to secure a basic water supply and the health of aquatic ecosystems.

IUCN Members, in WCC Resolution 3.006 (Protecting the Earth's waters for public and ecological benefit) urged support for achieving the WSSD target as well as full participation in decision-making about conservation, protection, distribution and use of water. The international community is also promoting rights-based approaches to water management based on the fundamental need for clean and drinkable water. At the national level, the State has to translate these obligations and commitments acquired in the international context into actual practice.

Transformation of water policy and management comes from consensus building in multi-stakeholder platforms. These platforms empower stakeholders at local, basin or transboundary levels to agree on rights, roles and responsibilities and to negotiate on water law reforms.

Furthermore, a good governance system should “think basin-wide, but act local”. When grassroots water user associations are involved in the process of planning, execution and maintenance of traditional water harvesting systems, they are more resilient and enable communities to adapt to climate change. Involving civil society at all levels encourages awareness and responsibility towards water and facilitates the acceptance of the legal system. This in turn presents a useful platform for solving possible conflicts between traditional and customary rights, by facilitating the implementation of water law through an active participation of the users at the final stage of water distribution. Finally, they can play a very important role in monitoring their share of the water system.

Successful water governance and management depends on including women. A 1988 study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre of community water supply and sanitation projects in 88 communities in 15 countries found that projects designed and run with the full participation of women are more sustainable and effective than those that do not involve women as full partners (IWSC, 1988).

Governance of transboundary waters is a complex issue with several challenges to delivering its environmental objectives. There are more than 260 international rivers in the world, covering 45% of the land surface of the Earth, and accounting for about 80% of global river flows. About 90% of the world's population currently lives in the countries sharing these rivers (World Bank, 2009). These essential resources are coming under increasing pressure as populations grow and economies develop. It is important to identify mechanisms and instruments to support the use of water as a catalyst for regional cooperation rather than a source of potential conflict. Cooperatively managing and developing these rivers requires great skill, robust institutions, significant investment, and strong cross-border cooperation. Examples of initiatives to do just that include the Nile Basin Dialogue, the Mekong River Commission, and the newly formed Volta Basin Authority.

Finding a common approach to the governance of transboundary waters is further complicated by the differing legislation, water management practices, institutional structures, languages and cultures of the bordering countries. Nevertheless, cooperation in managing the quality and quantity of transboundary water bodies also presents an opportunity from which all of the parties involved can benefit (Aguilar and Iza, 2006). Negotiations, consensus and agreements reached between two or more parts of a shared river basin become part of the system of water governance, but it is the political will of sovereign States that determines whether those will successfully support sustainable water management.


Water resources underpin the economy and dividends from investing in watershed services must account for the benefits and water security for livelihoods, business and economic development. Within the business sector there are diverse water interests; water services interest (people making money out of water); companies which sell products that need water; hydropower companies; companies that make biofuels; energy companies that use water for cooling; industries that require water for processing, etc. Before engaging businesses, however, it is important that users have a full understanding of all potential losses of ecosystem services that may be caused by development. Market-based incentives, including payments for ecosystem services (PES), are part of sustainable financing for IWRM. In Ecuador, the Quito Water Fund (FONAG) has built an investment prospectus to attract contributions from the public and private sectors to a long-term trust fund that aims to secure quantity and quality of water supplied to Quito from the Guayllabamna River Basin.

Water is a vital resource for the global agriculture and energy sectors. Agriculture is by far the main user of water. Irrigation and livestock account for 70% of water withdrawals, which can rise to more than 80% in some regions, so conservationists need to connect more with the agricultural sector to strengthen knowledge on water issues (MA, 2005c; World Water Assessment Programme, 2009). Without reliable access to water of the right quantity and quality, hydropower generation fails, especially where flows or cooling of power stations is reduced. These sectors, including the expanding numbers of biofuel producers, need to make sustainable water futures a priority, including investment in sustainable watershed management. Water and energy policy needs to be coordinated in both strategy and operation.

Returns on investment in water management and in ecosystems services are too often unaccounted for or underestimated. Ecosystem services-based management can provide a framework within which to support decision-making for services provided by natural systems and identify the trade-offs that may be needed in decisions (Farber et al., 2006). Investments in river basin sustainability stimulate “green growth” and economic resilience. Water and the services provided by watersheds, including water storage, purification, flood regulation and food security, have benefits across the economy, from local to national levels. Investments which ensure continuing or renewed water security and watershed services sustain local livelihoods, create opportunities for enterprise development and underpin national economic growth. Investments in river basin sustainability can thus stimulate growth that is pro-poor and environmentally robust while strengthening the resilience of communities and national economies.


Climate change is projected to cause significant impacts on water resources and widespread vulnerabilities. These impacts will be felt first and foremost through water – through drought, floods, storms, ice melting and sea-level rise. The rapid shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers, which may lose four-fifths of their area by 2030, means a huge natural reservoir storing water for more than a billion people may be lost.

Coping with such impacts means the need for climate change adaptation strategies. While water is at the centre of climate change impacts, it is also at the centre of adaptation policies, planning and action. River basins and coasts, and their ecosystems, are natural infrastructure for coping with these impacts. They provide water storage, flood control and coastal defence, all vital for reducing the vulnerabilities of communities and economies to climate change. Investment in IWRM, as “critical national natural infrastructure”, should be integral to climate change adaptation portfolios (Smith and Barchiesi, 2008).

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