SP9: The Adaptive Water Resource Management Handbook ("Guidebook")

Click here to download the Guidebook. Printed copies of the Guidebook are available at Earthscan.

Goals of natural resources management

The overarching goal of sound natural resource management is an equitable, efficient and sustainable use of managed resources (e.g. water, forests, and species stocks). The governance systems put in place in democratic societies to reach this goal must respect the principles of good governance, as laid down in the EC White Paper on Governance: to be transparent and accessible, inclusive, effective, coherent and accountable. Good environmental governance is both an end in itself and a mean to reach higher level environmental goals.

The benefit of Adaptive Water Management (AWM)

Adaptive management provides guidance on the means of reaching these goals, in situations where our knowledge of the underlying system processes is limited, and a high level of uncertainty exists. Thus the ultimate and overarching (long term) outcomes of adaptive water management are flexible and adaptive institutions, resilient society and ecosystems, and the ability to cope with those occasional extreme events which inevitably will come along.

In the four years of the NeWater project, work has produced a number of outputs and short-term outcomes. Formal outputs include all deliverables accessible from the project’s web site and the WISE-RTD research portals. The twelve synthesis products of which this book is a part, incorporate most of them. The numerous training, dissemination, horizon-scanning and foresight workshops that have been held throughout the project, have engaged thousands of individual end-users  such as public authorities and their scientific staff, scientific and public-interest groups, and of course citizens themselves. This has promoted and informed dialogues about how to initiate and deploy flexible and robust policy responses to the management challenges faced in a variety of different social and geopolitical contexts.

Adaptive management favours management practices that are sufficiently robust and flexible to cope with the uncertainties and inevitable surprises that are endemic in natural resource planning. In NeWater, adaptive management has been portrayed as a ‘systematic process for improving management policies and practices by learning from the outcomes of implemented management strategies’.

Adaptive water management draws on the principles which have proved effective and are embodied in the design of the integrated water resource management (IWRM), namely broad stakeholders’ and public participation, cross-sectoral analysis and policy integration, polycentric and decentralised governance, focus on multiple scales and transboundary efforts to manage natural resources. The focus on complexity and commitment to uncertainty is true to the AWM school of thought.

Yet, adaptive management it is not a panacea for all water management problems, and neither is it a one-size-fits-all solution. It is best suited for situations where uncertainty cannot be minimised in the short term or where the implementation of policies cannot be delayed until more and better knowledge is available.

Lessons learned during the NeWater project

Based on the experiences from the seven case studies the following 5 lessons learned (see figure) have been identified, here introduced with the five selected metaphors: Lighthouse, Explorer, Academician, Researcher and Nurture.

Newater guidebook - Lessons learned

Insight 1: Enabling environment and capacity building

It is unrealistic to expect that the implementation of the AWM principles will be smooth and straightforward. One might rather expect to meet similar obstacles to those identified in the efforts to put IWRM in place.

The experimental character of the adaptive policies will require regulatory flexibility, or more specifically the discretion to tighten or relax the rules and policy provisions to fit local circumstances. The exemptions granted by the WFD provide this type of flexibility, at least in theory. The wider discretion of the water authorities however will need to be balanced by greater public oversight, in order to ensure that the flexibility does not taint the lack of response and so that uncertainty is not used as an excuse to deter action (Doremus, 2001).

Secondly, engaging in learning experiments and meaningful public dialogue will require time and financial commitments. Unless sufficient resources are devoted to capacity building and public engagement exercises, it will be difficult to implement AWM.

Training and capacity-building play important roles in realizing an AWM: capacity to fully exploit the given mandate, build skills (know how), and deploy resources. In NeWater, a demand-oriented training, train-the-trainer, broker and train-the-practitioners concepts worked well, as did demonstration projects. Similar principles could become a basis for broader training programmes, targeted to different administrative levels and public interest groups. The ability to create social learning, propel trust and ensure ownership to ideas and processes is paramount to AWM. The Guadiana case study demonstrates how different perceptions of the issues at stake can obstruct consensus. Social learning exercises conducted by the case study team which engaged various stakeholder groups helped to dispel disagreements on the facts (what is or will be) and understand the values in question (what ought to be). They also helped the participants to better appreciate the positions of others, crystallise shared beliefs and achieve a collective understanding of the water issues faced.

Insight 2: Commit to uncertainty

Commitment to uncertainty means that uncertainty is addressed openly in a transparent and accountable manner. The first and least controversial step in doing so is to acknowledge the major uncertainties and their implications on policy. Concealing uncertainty for whatever reason is not reconcilable with scientific norms or with principles of good governance. The second step on the ladder of difficulty is to describe the uncertainty in quantitative or qualitative terms, and explain their origin, causes and magnitude, in a way which is accessible to various stakeholders without scientific training. It is important to describe what is known together with what is unknown; a lopsided focus on uncertainty alone can occasionally mask the substantial body of available knowledge.

The third step is to decide what course of action is the most reconcilable with our knowledge and expectations with what the future might bring. These choices manifest values held and are matter of public debate and conciliation. One of the possible responses to uncertainty is to decide not to take any action until more and better knowledge is collected. There are however, two aspects to bear in mind: first, postponing decisions is often associated with costs which may outweigh the benefits of dispelled doubts; and second, improved knowledge does not necessarily mean uncertainty will be reduced. A proactive take on uncertainty is possible by hedging against adverse future outcomes, or by deploying a range of complementary policy measures. Adaptive management handles uncertainty e.g. by creating flexible and robust solutions that are able to adapt to unknown, unexpected or changing conditions. The type of solutions sought are those which can work in a range of future conditions, or ones which can be successively adjusted and corrected as new knowledge is gained.

Insight 3: Think twice before deciding

Even a well-designed and intentioned policy can trigger unintended consequences or be cancelled out by unforeseeable events. A recent example is the biofuel policies now blamed for high food prices and increased tropical deforestation.

Under AWM it is essential to examine the potential corollaries and ancillary effects of policy choices. Many techniques are available for this end: foresight pursuits ranging from prediction to pragmatic speculation, scrutiny of out-of-sight feedbacks, deliberative exercises etc.

From the outset, the possible adverse consequences and surprises can be matched with corrective mechanisms. Where this is not practical, policy response can be split into a series of sequential commitments, implemented incrementally and reversed when the setbacks become evident, as in the case of the EU biofuel policy.

Group model building, vulnerability assessments, Management and Transition Framework and other tools described in this book and elsewhere facilitate a thoughtful policy analysis and systemic learning targeted at vulnerability, adaptive capacity, resilience, and other key aspects of AWM and the transition processes.

Insight 4: Dare experiments

The policy experiments are learning-by/while-doing exercises. They may take different forms such as pilot projects, community-based management and stewardship, conditional permits, voluntary commitments, public communication campaign, etc. All of them need to be based on well-defined and implementable learning objectives, and clear and measurable outcomes. However, once concluded, a post-audit review should address all impacts, including those for which the experiments were not initially designed.

The experiments, by definition, may fail to deliver the expected results. This needs to be taken into account when setting up the experiment; where failure may harm the resources beyond repair, the experiments are not the best methods to pursue. The experiments should therefore be planned so as to encourage sustained participation of various actors, and to instigate a spirit of collaboration, ownership and trust. As the experiments will demand substantial resources and time, it is important to share the insights and knowledge gained from the experiments.

On the other hand, experience and practice, even if scattered with a few errors, are necessary to make an expert.

Insight 5: Plan for adaptation

Planning for adaptation means to identify the conditions under which the policy has to be revised in advance – i.e. reversed, adjusted, strengthened or complemented by additional measures. This revision can be scheduled – for example the WFD planning cycles are to be renewed every six years, or initiated after the agreed performance indicators have reached a critical value (e.g. when it becomes clear that the good ecological status cannot be achieved, or will deteriorate, in the current planning period).

Enforcement and compliance monitoring systems, which are essential under any accountable management approach, are even more important under the AWM. The indicators of short, medium and long-term performance of adaptive policies are instrumental for policy monitoring, and transparency and accountability to the respective authorities. To design the useful indicators and monitoring systems is not an easy task, it is important to ensure that the monitoring does not turn into disproportional administrative burdens.

AWM requires larger investments into the monitoring of hydrological characteristics of the basin, measuring the links between climate, land use, groundwater & surface water systems and wetlands, and assessing the performance of economic, social and environmental indicators. In order to properly design, evaluate and adjust these types of monitoring programmes, the integration of modelling that allows a proper evaluation of the status of interacting groundwater and surface water systems is needed.

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The Adaptive Water Resource Management Handbook
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