Bridging science, policy and the implementation of environmental flows

The IUCN Water Programme ran a key session on environmental flows at the CAIWA (International Conference on Adaptive and Integrated Water Management) in Basel on Thursday 15 November. The session addressed the issues of bridging science and policy, and how to move towards implementation of environmental flows.

Environmental flows refer to water provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits where there are competing users.

The unique aspect of this discussion was that it was initiated through the Global Environmental Flows Network ( as a virtual group discussion. Chris Dickens from the Institute of Natural Resources in South Africa put forward the issue that the systems of environmental flow assessment have become too complicated. There have been over 900 assessments in South Africa and no implementation. There is a great danger that water managers are staring to ignore environmental flows when deciding water allocations partly because of the complexity of the information presented and redundancy of much of the data. Both scientists and policy makers need to consider the obstacles to implementation and how to get past this blockage.

Using this discussion as a starting point, the session had several presentations to lay the ground towards developing further ideas on how to bridge the gap between environmental science, policy and implementing outputs from flow assessment.

Maja Schlüter with UFZ- Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig demonstrated how the environmental flows concept is being incorporated into water management in the Amudarya river delta in Uzbekistan. Chris Dickens then discussed the obstacles to implementation especially in South Africa despite environmental flows being integrated into policy and accepted by policy makers. These range from the threat of legal action over water rights to the pervasive idea that people and environment are competing for water to models being too complex for managers to make decisions. Following from this Anna Forslund from WWF Sweden gave a comprehensive overview of policy arrangements that are being used to apply environmental flows. Finally, Katharine Cross from IUCN examined the role of environmental flows science in policy making and used the example of the Pangani Basin in Tanzania to demonstrate the importance of including decision makers in all steps of the process of assessing environmental flows.

An interactive and dynamic discussion followed the presentations where participants were asked to consider how the communication gap can be bridged between science and policy and what steps need to be taken.

Several concrete suggestions were put forward during the session. It is essential to have a better understanding of stakeholder needs and their agendas in order to know how to frame the issue of environmental flows. Science must embrace the politics and use cultural hooks and social concerns to communicate the urgency of sustainable water allocation. For example, showing the potential impact of adjusting flows on people’s livelihoods and social landscape (where they go to wash, get water, fish, etc) can enable politicians and their constituents understand the implications rather than being shown a hydrograph generated by a model. In addition, the onus needs to be not just on scientists to communicate better but also on policy makers to specify what they need. Those in policy also must recognize decisions are a societal choice of what is an acceptable level of river health to all stakeholders but is informed by science. Therefore, science can provide key information and knowledge but it does not actually deliver the decisions themselves.

This session was an excellent example of how the Global Environmental Flows Network (eFlowNet) is bringing the issue of environmental flows to the forefront of water resource management. Furthermore, it enabled scientists and policy makers to start bridging the communication gap and begin to understand what is needed to move forward from assessment to implementation. To further this discussion and explore other issues relating to environmental flows, visit

IUCN Water Programme

About the World Conservation Union (IUCN)
Created in 1948, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) brings together 84 States, 108 government agencies, 800 plus NGOs, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 147 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. The Union’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.
The Union is the world's largest environmental knowledge network and has helped over 75 countries to prepare and implement national conservation and biodiversity strategies. The Union is a multicultural, multilingual organization with 1,000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact:

Claire Warmenbol, IUCN Water Programme Communications Officer, Mobile: +41 79 404 1973,

Katharine Cross, IUCN Water Programme Project Officer,, Ph: +41 22 999 0189

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