Prepared for the Both Ends/Gomukh
2. What is an Ecosystem Approach?....................................................................2
3. The catchment as a complex web of ecosystems............................................3
4. Healthy societies – healthy ecosystems...........................................................4
5. Participatory IRBM as an Ecosystem Approach...............................................8
6. Potential road map for an Ecosystems Approach within IRBM......................9
ement as an
Humanity has long been dependent on the earth’s natural resources and, despite the
apparent safeguards of technological advances, society is still fully dependent on ecosystems.
Early scientific resource management viewed natural resources as limitless and was driven by
an exploitative, ‘commodification’ approach based on efficient utilisation. However, as is
evident from the literature in the last three decades, human demand is pushing the capacity
of these systems to provide life-support to society and threatening longterm socio-ecological
sustainability. Indeed, the traditional resource management frameworks have been criticised
for not placing these issues at centre-stage (see Berkes & Folke 1998).
In response, a number of new frameworks and strategies have evolved to address the
concerns of sustainability with, more recently, a greater focus on poverty alleviation and
. Developed through a more holistic lens, many of these represent a fundamental
departure from traditional assessment and planning tools. One such approach in the
freshwater arena is that of Integrated Catchment or River Basin Management (IRBM). It is
this approach, together with stakeholder participation, that is being examined within the BE/G
project. As a component of this, the ecosystems approach to integrated planning and
management of water resources for sustainability is being examined. It is particularly
pertinent to this project, as it has been suggested that ecosystems approaches offer a bridge
between the environment and human well-being.
The aim of this paper is to explore the concepts and to draw links between IRBM and
ecosystems approaches, specifically for use by the BE/G project partners. It is one of the four
selected analytical themes for the BE/G projects and this document aims to provide a
common understanding by highlighting issues to help cases explore their own notions of
ecosystems thinking. I start with a description, followed by a discussion of catchments as
ecosystems, and the importance of healthy ecosystems to society. I then explore the notion
of participatory IRBM and ecosystem approaches and close with a suggested analytical
framework for the cases.
This overall focus also requires that the project explore other associated concepts on the
global sustainability agendas, such as the Dublin Principles, Agenda 21 and the Earth
Summits of 1992 and 2002.
Ecosystems: our life-support systems.
In the broadest sense ecosystems include freshwater systems, forests,
coastal systems, agro-ecosystem and grasslands (WRI et al. 2000.).
Each of these comprise smaller-scale component ecosystems such as
Ecosystems are the productive en
ines of the planet that provide us with
soils, nutrients, water, food, genetic resources, timber, non-timber
products. They also provide a ran
e of ecosystem services such as water
supply and flood control (fig. 1; table 1). To do this, the processes and
cycles that maintain them are essential. Compromising these goods and
services and processes, as we are doing, compromises life itself.
2. What is an Ecosystem Approach?
Essentially, ecosystems approaches arose as a critique of the reductionist approaches of
traditional management and policy frameworks within the natural resources disciplines. In
particular, many of these frameworks treated people as separate to, instead of an integral
part of ecosystems. In most cases, the focus was on the isolated problem at hand with little
cognisance of the wider context and its role and was, more often than not, product driven.
For example, a product-driven approach has meant that freshwater systems, forests and
agricultural land have been conventionally managed to achieve growth in outputs. This
narrow focus has come under scrutiny and a number of assessments, the most recent of
which - the PAGE assessment
- concluded that these increased outputs had been at the
expense of other goods and services such as water quality and quantity and carbon storage
(WRI et al. 2000). In particular, the management of freshwater systems for human utility has
generally followed unsustainable routes (Boon et al. 2000). Likewise, many supply-driven
approaches to water shortages (even those that embrace the principles of democracy and
participation) have been unsuccessful because the underlying cause of the problem is related
to a far wider range of social and natural resource issues such as unsustainable water and
land-use practices upstream in the catchment. These, in turn, are often related to wider
political and socio-economic factors.
In response to these constraints, calls were made for more holistic approaches to planning
for sustainability. Indeed, this thinking has rapidly gained credence and support and has been
adopted by many institutions (e.g. IUCN (see Pirot et al. 2000), WRI et al. 2000) and in a
number of planning frameworks (e.g. the Millennium assessment) and policy statements. The
Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has endorsed the ecosystems approach and defines
it as follows:
recognises that humans are an integral part of most ecosystems. The
foundation of this approach is designed to achieve a balance between peoples’ needs and
longterm sustainability. But, as the above definitions suggests it is about more than that. An
ecosystem approach essentially represents systems thinking which recognises that a system
is made up of complex and interconnected parts. A system approach relates to the
properties of the system as a whole and hence calls for different types of decision-making
and management action (Everard & Powell 2002). This evokes new methodological practices
that essentially aim to temper human activities against the principles of sustainability and
equity. Thus ecosystem-based management attempts organize human use to strike a
balance between benefiting from natural resources while maintaining and ecosystem’s ability
to provide these at a sustainable level, now and in the future (Pirot et al. 2000).
For the purposes of the BE/G project, it is important to note that many local people who live
in close relation to the biophysical environment, have knowledge about that environment
which in part exhibits elements of systems thinking. Together with broader ‘scientific’
The PAGE (Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems) was a global study undertaken to assess the condition
of, and changes in the Earths major ecosystems: agroecosystems, coastal, forest, freshwater and
It is important to note that, contrary to comments in our meeting in India, ecosystem approaches are
not the same as Environmental Impact Assessments, nor are they about conserving a few species.
An ecosystem approach
is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living
resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable
knowledge about systems thinking, we should be exploring these as a component of part of
participatory IRBM. In the Sand River Catchment, for instance, people make a direct link
between the advent of commercial forestry in the upper catchment and changing flow
conditions downstream, and see solutions directly linked to this. In Peru, the upper
catchment is recognised for its importance as a source of medicinal plants. In Bangladesh,
people are concerned with maintaining the functioning of the estuary and wetlands. In Nan,
people have identified the upstream – downstream linkages between the proposed
developments and their livelihoods. However, the disregard for linkages and interrelationships
has been shaped by lack of options, knowledge or political interests and agendas, and equally
needs to be recognised. At a local level, poverty (and hence lack of options) and livelihood
vulnerability mean that people can no longer incorporate this knowledge into practice. Again,
in the Sand Catchment a range of factors including lack of knowledge, political expediency
and sectoral divisions has led to the belief in some quarters that there is a large amount of
water upstream that simply needs to be tapped. At an institutional level officials act and plan
accordingly. Moreover, Understanding the basis and history of these beliefs is as important to
a sustainable management plan as any of the technical ‘truths’. It is in understanding these
beliefs that an appropriate action and management plan can be designed.
In summary, the key characteristics and principles of this approach can be summarised as
People are an integral part of ecosystems
It recognises interconnectedness of ecosystems and peoples relationship with and
It is about achieving a balance (needs versus sustainability) and hence may involve
It is an integrated approach (vertical and horizontal)
It must be flexible and adaptive
Strives for management that maintains linkages (between ecosystems such as land-
water linkages and between peoples needs and systems)
Seeks to maintains future options whilst acknowledging risks and uncertainties
Seeks to reduce vulnerability in order to maintain resilience
3. The catchment as a complex web of ecosystems
A catchment, defined on the basis of geographical characteristics, is a complex array
interconnected ecosystems. At the very least, it comprises upland and lower lands (which
comprise natural forests, grasslands and agroecosystems, and will also include villages and
urban centres), river systems and underground water. How these systems are interlinked
and how they function determines current catchment characteristics, productive potential and
the potential paths or trends of change. In the case of Bangladesh, silt, a key component of
ecosystem functioning and livelihood support, originates elsewhere. Not building this into a
medium or longer-term management considerations may serve to undermine the very
successful local action project. Likewise, poor water quality may reflect the inherent
characteristic of the geology or poor land-use practices some distance from the where the
problem is being experienced. Any remedial plan such as IRBM, must strive to develop a
comprehensive and robust framework that takes into account the wider threats and hence
solutions. In the Se San, for example, local peoples’ livelihoods are threatened by dams
upstream – but equally may be threatened by land-based activities such as logging in the
future. Can a strategy and plan be developed that mitigates against such broad-scale threats
and that provides a more longterm and resilient solution? It could be argued that one
approach would be to develop an incremental strategy that deals in the medium-term with
the immediate threat at hand and in the longer-term that seeks to develop this more robust
Scale is an important issue when asking the question - what is an ecosystem? In many ways
the boundaries depend on the issues and questions at hand. A small wetland may be viewed
as an ecosystem with its own biophysical and socio-economic characteristics. In turn, at a
much large scale, it forms part of more extensive systems and communities such as major
river systems. On the one hand, the focus may be on understanding how that wetland
functions. This will be influenced by internal and surrounding factors (particularly land and
water use) and what goods are provided to the wetland users. On the other hand, at a
catchment scale, the issue might be to understand wetlands services and the role of wetlands
in catchment water security and livelihoods.
However, the boundaries between ecosystems are less important than the linkages between
them (WRI et al. 2000). The very qualities that make ecosystems productive relates to this
interconnectedness – the amount of water available, its quality and quantity, together with
sunlight, are largely what determines the types of plants, insects and animals and hence the
basis for human survival.
4. Healthy societies – healthy ecosystems
A basic tenet of the ecosystems approach is that healthy societies are more likely to be
associated with healthy ecosystems. Societies’ productive base is composed of natural,
human, social and manufactured capital (MA 2003). A societies ‘natural capital’ – its living
and non-living resources- is therefore a key determinant of its well-being. Clearly, human
well-being has multiple components from basic materials for a life, health, freedom and
choice, good societal relations, security and peace of mind (Figure 1). Ecosystems are thus an
important component of societal well-being through the provision of a wide range of ‘goods
here are a number of concepts that are fundamental to ecosystems approaches. Many of
these are still under debate but for the purposes of the BE/G project, the following
descriptions should suffice.
Ecosystem goods and services:
Ecosystems goods and services are the benefits people derive, directly or indirectly, from
ecosystems (Table 2, Figure x). However, in a society focused on technological advances,
these have been largely undervalued or ignored until recently, particularly since they are not
traded in the conventional economy (Carpenter et al. 2002). Rivers, for example, provide
fisheries, floodplain agriculture, natural products, aquifer replenishment, nutrient cycling,
water quality controls, and biodiversity- all for free. This disparity in acknowledging a
fundamental asset of society led to the development of the concept of ecosystem ‘goods and
services’ (Box 3), which requires that they are assessed and valued with the same importance
as any other good or service upon which societies are reliant.
Indeed, the concept received global attention with a publication by Constanza and his
colleagues in 1987 and ‘97, which valued the world’s natural resources and associated
services at three times as much annually as all other economic activities. It transpired that
rivers, wetlands and lakes proved to be the most valuable systems by area (US$ 8,5000 –
15,000 per hectare versus $1,000 for land-based systems) and contributed a global value of
US$33 trillion! Since then the concept has been explored and refined through more local-level
studies. Nonetheless, attaching a price to the natural capital is difficult and controversial.
Although a discussion on valuing ecosystems valuation is beyond the scope of this paper, a
few comments are pertinent. Not only is resource economics poorly equipped to deal with
pricing of ‘intangibles’ or potential future benefits, but also researchers often undertake
assessments with little experience in the social science field. Hence the derived models of
societies, livelihoods and change are simplistic with poor predictive capacity. Nonetheless, in
Ecosystem goods and services
The conditions and processes through which ecosystems sustain and fulfil human
life, including the provision of food and other goods (Carpenter et al. 2002)
a society driven by the need to attach financial value to goods, particularly in order to
compare their relative importance when assessing tradeoffs, resource economics has its
place. Based on valuation techniques, some societies have opted to re-establish natural
ecosystems services over technological replacements. Until recently clean water for New
York, for example, has been supplied from the Catskill/ Delaware watersheds but recent
developments have overtaxed the systems’ buffering and filtering capacity. The costs for the
development of filtration systems was estimated between US$ 3 – 8 billion while by
comparison, an aggressive water shed protection plan would be $1.5 billion. The latter,
crafted as an environmental protection plan, is now being pursued (Ryan 1998 in WRI et al.
Spiritual & religious
Recreation & tourism
Sense of place
Basic material for life
bility to access
resources to earn
income & gain a
bility to live in
& safe shelter
bility to reduce
dequate & clean
Free from avoidable
Energy to keep warm,
express cultural &
observe, study & learn
Determinants & constituents
Figure 1 Ecosystems services and their links to human well-bein
Ecosystem Assessment 2003).
An example of ecosystems services and some of the associated benefits (after Pirot et al.
2000). Note that rivers have been added to this table and aesthetic and recreational benefits
are attached to all ecosystems
FUNCTIONS AND SERVICES OF
COMMON ECOSYSTEM BENEFITS
Soil and watershed protection
Carbon uptake and storage
Carbon dioxide removal
Rivers Groundwater recharge and discharge
Water quantity and quality
Regulation of sediment supply
Medicinal and biomedical products
Fish & plants (nurseries and products)
Wetlands Groundwater recharge and discharge
Water quantity and quality
Sediment, toxins and nutrient retention
Medicinal and biomedical products
Fish (nurseries and products) & plants
Mangroves Storm protection
Provision and renewal of nutrients
Fish nurseries and products
Aesthetic and recreational
Historical and cultural
Coral reefs Coastal protection
Oceans Global climate regulation Fisheries
Not surprisingly, a range of different categorisations that differentiate goods and services
accordingly, has emerged in this growing field:
Goods (e.g. water, food, soil) and services (e.g. climate regulation, water quality
Direct (e.g. water, food) and indirect (e.g. climate regulation, soil formation)
Supporting (soil formation), provisioning (food, water), regulating (water and climate
regulation) and cultural services (aesthetic, spiritual)(see Figure 1);
Ecosystem functions, ecological benefits and goods and services.
The important point is to recognise that whilst some services are directly beneficial and hence
often more readily valued, numerous others are less visible but may be equally or more
important (soil formation, flood and erosion control, pollination, climate regulation, nutrient
cycling, cultural value). Additionally, since aquatic and terrestrial systems are interlinked, it
follows that their ecosystems services are linked (Carpenter et al. 2002).
Poverty and ecosystem health: The links between people and ecosystems has been made
but nowhere is this more stark that for the rural poor. It is estimated that 80% of the poor in
the developing countries live in rural areas where people rely directly on ecosystem goods
and services for their livelihoods (Jazairy et al. 1992). For rural communities and the poor in
particular, there are few substitutes or choices for ecosystem goods and services (MA 2003).
Nonetheless, this does not imply that the wealthy are independent of ecosystems but that
they are indirectly reliant on goods and services and in fact, their demand for these, termed
the ‘ecological footprint’ far exceeds that of the poor (e.g. Wackernagel & Rees 1995; WWF).
Ecosystem condition or health
Despite the fact that all economies depend on ecosystem services – the world’s fisheries
contribute $ 55 Billion in export value in 2000 (FAO 2000, in MA), Chicago’s trees remove
5000 tonnes of pollutants a year from the atmosphere (Nowak 1994, cited in MA) - two key
trends are emerging:
1) Human demands for ecosystems services are growing rapidly and,
2) humans are increasingly undermining the productive capability of ecosystems to
provide the services that people desire.
Ecosystems are inherently dynamic and changing. However, human overexploitation is the
primary pressure on ecosystems today that is driving change at a different rate and along
different pathways The ability of ecosystems to maintain integrity, in other words, their
function, organisation and structure (including interconnections) is an indication of the
ecosystem condition or health. It follows that ecosystem degradation compromises these
characteristics and, in turn, the systems ability to deliver goods and services and
hence societal well being. This is starkly evident in the current concerns regarding global
warming where the Earth’s natural capacity to regulate climate has been compromised by
Many believe, however, that the continued degradation of world’s ecosystems is neither
inevitable nor justified. New instruments that support management such as education,
governance, technology, tenure and institutional arrangements - all offer options for
sustainable practice (WRI et al. 2000). Integrated Catchment or Basin Management, properly
interpreted and appropriately implemented and managed, should stand as one such
instrument. In terms of environmental security, catchment stakeholders need to understand
the condition of the resource and associated goods and services, as well as thresholds of
change. An adequate assessment of ecosystem condition, the provision of services and their
implications for human well-being form an essential part of an integrated approach.
Drivers of change
A driver is a natural or human-induced factor that directly or indirectly causes a change in an
ecosystem. Understanding the factors that cause changes in ecosystems
and their services is
essential to designing interventions that enhance positive feedbacks and minimise negative
The major drivers for change can be categorised as socio-cultural, environmental, economic,
political or SEEP (Pollard et al. 2003). Drivers may also be direct or indirect and may operate
at different scales (local, regional, national, international). The case of the Se San
demonstrates this clearly. Political and economic drivers have produced change in the Se San
river that have been felt very locally in terms of changed ecosystem services and functions.
Direct drivers can be identified and measured whilst indirect drivers often act on direct
drivers, and their influence is established by understanding the effects on direct drivers.
Criteria and indicators of ecosystem condition
Indicators are an essential element of any assessment tool in that progress along a trajectory
of change can be monitored and evaluated – either explicitly or through informal indicators.
In the case of the BE/G project, we need to concern ourselves with how case holders and
participants perceive the impacts of projects or interventions on the five themes and vice
versa. How, for example, do issues of gender influence participatory IRBM? Does the
participatory approach influence issues relating to gender? Importantly, what indicators
(implicit or explicit) are being used to assess this?
This does not imply management toward homogeneity. Ecosystems, or linked socio-ecological
systems, are inherently dynamic and it is this characteristic that confers a certain ‘robustness’ or
inherent strength that copes with change. However, when these systems are pushed beyond certain
bounds, or are held in a state of stability, that ecosystem’s integrity tends to decline. Thus, for example,
the exclusion of fire for over a 100 years in Yellowstone Park led to fierce fires of 2001 of unanticipated
magnitude and destruction.
Although a discourse on indicators is beyond the scope of this paper, it is useful to note that
three characteristics of a “good indicator” have been suggested: representativity, reliability
and feasibility (see MA 2003).
5. Participatory IRBM as an Ecosystem Approach
Interestingly, there is little to differentiate the definition of an ecosystems approach given in
Box 2 and the accepted definitions of IRBM (see for example, Box 4). Indeed, I would argue
that IRBM is an example of an ecosystems approach (Pollard 2002). Although misinterpreted
by some (either out of ignorance or to secure political or economic gain – see Hirsch &
Pollard in prep.), the true intention of IRBM is to achieve sustainable, equitable and efficient
water resources management (WRM). It is conceptualised to achieve this through a
fundamental reorientation to traditional WRM through the adoption of systems thinking. The
catchment, with its biophysical and socio-political characteristics, is regarded as the unit for
IRBM. The interconnectedness is made explicit through the recognition of upstream-
downstream and landuse-aquatic linkages. Theoretically this basis provides a framework for
understanding a range of factors such as current and potential problems and their causes and
effects. Undoubtedly, the nature of water – its unidirectional flow- acts as an integrator of
these complex linkages.
Please see comments attached
Box 4: ICM - Some definitions
(after Gorgens et al. 1997; WISA et al. 2000)
All the definitions start with: Asimultaneously a philosophy; a process and an
implementation strategy to achieve...@
Catchment management: A.. a sustainable balance between utilisation and protection
of water resources in a catchment. It recognises the need for mutual dependence of
water, land use, and aquatic ecology management and for consensual participation by
relevant stakeholders, communities and organs of state.@.
Integrated Catchment Management: A..a sustainable balance between utilisation and
protection of all environmental resources
in a catchment, and to achieve a
sustainable society through stakeholder, community and government partnerships in a
Nonetheless, not all IRBM initiatives are either participatory nor do they represent systems
thinking (ecosystems approaches). The concept of participation – by basin stakeholders - is
seen as one way to better meet the goals of IRBM (as defined above). This is based on the
belief that through an understanding the catchment as a whole, its capacity to deliver goods
and services and the demands placed on it (now and in the future), and the interests and
interactions of people whose livelihoods depend on these, stakeholders will be in a better
position to negotiate a common vision, to negotiate their rights and tradeoffs, and change,
and to monitor compliance. The fundamental premise is that by understanding linkages and
developing a sense of the ‘whole’ (i.e. the linkages between socio-ecological systems) people
also develop a sense of ownership and responsibility (see Pollard & du Toit in prep.). By
adopting an ecosystems approach the emphasis changes from one of self-interest in a
vacuum to one of a contextualised self-interest or, at best, an interest in the whole
Within the BE/G project the question has been asked as to whether or not it is always
appropriate to outline or adopt an ecosystem approach, especially in cases of intense crisis or
struggle. There are a number of points in this regard. Notably, such a framework should not
compel cases, particularly when the immediate crisis at hand demands direct action.
Nonetheless, struggles can act as important catalysts for systems thinking and longer term
This assumption has yet to be substantiated but it is hoped these case studies will explore
resolutions. In the case of the Sand River, the lack of potable water during the last drought
demanded immediate action but also served to initiate longer term, integrated plans. Already
in the case of the Se San, systems thinking has been called upon to build a case – the
upstream-downstream linkages have been made, as have the linkages between flow, water
quality and fishing resources. One of the key questions to ask is whether a plan can be
developed that not only addresses the current crisis but that is sufficiently robust to contend
with additional, unanticipated issues or threats. Once again, as stated in the case of the Se
San the catchment, and peoples’ livelihoods, may be equally threatened by a logging
operation if an insufficiently comprehensive longterm strategy is developed. Thus, rather than
being used as a ‘round peg in square whole’, an ecosystems approach is appropriate if it
offers a useful framework for sustainability planning.
6. Potential road map for an Ecosystems Approach
The following points are offered as a potential approach to adopting and ecosystems
approach within ICM. They are not intended as a blueprint- nor are they intended to be
What ecosystems comprise the catchment or area of interest and what are their linkages?
This includes natural and social systems and consideration of the upstream-downstream,
land-water and socio-ecological linkages.
Demographic assessment. How many people in each system? Livelihood profile etc.
Goods and services derived from these systems. Contribution to livelihoods. Change and
What condition are these socio-ecological systems in?
Drivers of change or stability. What are the key drivers of change(s) in the system? Does
this appear to be unsustainable?
Indicators. What indicators are being used to assess change – either explicitly or
Local systems thinking. What are peoples’ perceptions of system linkages – do these
differ from the more formal assessments? What are peoples’ perceptions of their physical
environment and does this differ from formal/ outsiders’ assessment?
What are the existing and potential governance institutions?
IRBM as a framework to ensure linkages (for example, land-water linkages, upstream-
downstream linkages) and the strategies and institutional roles and responsibilities that
can restore and maintain these? What actions can enhance this?
The ecosystems approach arose as an alternative to the reductionist approaches of traditional
planning and management frameworks. As such, it offers a strategy and framework for
organising thinking and action within a catchment context. Notably, it explicitly recognises
linkages – not only of land-water and upstream-downstream systems – but also of socio-
ecological systems. It attempts to draw attention to the drivers that maintain or catalyse
change in a system and whether these trajectories are sustainable or not. Given this
backdrop, it is suggested that it provides for the development of more robust mitigation and
longterm sustainability planning. In its intended form, this matches the principles of IRBM
and hence the two strategies and underpinning philosophies are complimentary.
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Appendix 1: Comments from India meeting on Ecosystems
Ecosystem approach as such is not recognised as such by local people, and sometimes
not included consciously in an integrated approach to river basin management. Needs
more explanation and a more explicit description in comparison to IRBM.
b) Local priorities are not always appropriate as they stand, if they are not considered within
the wider ecosystem concept within which they operate
A. Healthy society requires healthy ecosystems. A catchment has many ecosystems, which
B. IRBM represents systems thinking, and should embrace ecosystems thinking so as to
assure linkages between livelihoods and ecosystem health.
C. People living in a specific system have forms of system thinking and these should be
D. Basic requirements of any ecosystem management approach: Water secured for basic
human needs and ecosystem functioning.
E. Ecosystems approaches rely on adaptive management (reflexive learning)
Points of attention:
How to use indicators as part of negotiation to understand limits, thresholds etc?
Science is important, as it allows for the interpretation and validation, or explanation of
people’s understanding of ecosystem functioning.
It is not yet clear enough that cases are taking an ecosystem approach. There is a need
for something that reflects our thinking across systems.
The development of the working definition of the Ecosystem approach is a good example
of the type of learning by this process.
Points of attention:
Do case holders really follow an ecosystems approach? With increasing scarcity,
interactions get more complex, scale dependent, and thus difficult to follow:
Interventions in the hills may affect coastal wetlands, but these impacts are difficult to
What are outcomes? Does the negotiated approach really lead to poverty reduction,
environmental sustainability? How do you measure it?