Strategic approaches to freshwater management: background paper -- the ecosystem approach


[Note: This is a reprint of the background paper for "Strategic Approaches to Freshwater Management: Recommendations for Action" authored by IUCN and WWF for presentation in connection with a panel discussion on "Freshwater Ecosystem Conservation: Water for People" (21 April 1998), as part of the 6th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 20 April to 1 May 1998.    Contact names for further information appear at the end of the paper.  I have added highlighting in red text to references to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.]

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Commission on Sustainable Development - 6th Session
New York, USA / 20 April - 1 May 1998



Background Paper: The Ecosystem Approach

The continuous neglect of the freshwater requirements of ecosystems is having serious environmental, social and economic consequences for societies and further promotes the destruction and degradation of important ecosystems. Appropriate amounts of water should be allocated to maintain ecosystems and to ensure maximum sustainable benefits to fulfil basic human needs. Without ecosystem conservation, basic human needs cannot be met, and without those basic needs being met, social development is impossible and economic development to benefit people is unfeasible.

The maintenance of biodiversity in this respect is of immense importance but is often neglected in current management plans. To meet human requirements and to achieve the sustainable management of water resources and ecosystem functions an ecosystem approach to freshwater management is desirable.

Taking an ecosystem approach to freshwater management means assessing water availability (quantity and quality), identifying inter-relationships at the ecosystem level, predicting the environmental and social impact of any proposed action and evaluating the consequences before any decision is made on use. An ecosystem approach to freshwater management emphasises the dependence of maximising the sustainable use on the conservation of freshwater ecosystems and focuses on catchments or groundwater systems as the appropriate units of management.

The implementation of the ecosystem approach is based on four principles: a) adapting policy and practices including the equitable sharing of costs and benefits and the implementation of sustainable practices; b) establishing new partnerships to improve effectiveness and efficiency in freshwater ecosystem management; c) strengthening the capacities at different levels to sustainably manage water resources; d) improving the assessment of water resources and ecosystem functions and identifying threats to the resource base.


The ecosystem approach is a comprehensive regional approach that integrates ecological protection and restoration with human needs to strengthen the fundamental connection between economic and social prosperity and environmental well being.

The ecosystem approach provides a framework that draws together governments, the private sector, public groups and other stakeholders to achieve an ultimate goal of sustaining healthy ecosystems that continue to provide a multitude of goods and services to support basic human needs.

The ecosystem approach is goal driven and is based on a collaboratively developed vision of desired future conditions that integrates ecological, economic, social and legal factors. It is applied within a geographic framework defined primarily by ecological boundaries such as catchments and groundwater system units.


The goal of the ecosystem approach is to restore and sustain the functions of ecosystems, based on their health, productivity, and biological diversity, and the overall quality of life through a natural resource management approach that is fully integrated with social and economic goals.


Governments and agencies should adopt a set of common principles to guide them in sustainable freshwater ecosystem management. The general principles listed below are intended to give guidance on implementing the ecosystem approach. They need to be tailored, however, to institutional mandates and local circumstances.

Adapting policies and practices

  • Develop management policies and practices that are sustainable and maintain or enhance ecosystem structure and functioning and thus operate within the limits of ecosystems;

  • Ensure that all parties can contribute to, and benefit equally from, achieving the defined ecosystem management goals;

  • Use ecological approaches to rehabilitate or restore biological diversity and sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems;

  • Apply an adaptive approach to management to achieve both desired goals and a further understanding of freshwater ecosystem functioning;

Establishing partnerships

  • Support the development of a shared vision of the desired ecosystem conditions for the short and longer term using multidisciplinary teams and involving representatives of all stakeholders;

  • Ensure community and user group involvement in all stages of development planning and implementation.

Strengthening capacities

  • Ensure adequate capacity exists within govermental institutions and implementing agencies to apply ecologically sensetive approaches and to involve all stakeholders in decision making;

  • Support capacity-building for stakeholder groups and their representatives to strengthen their contribution to decision making.

Improving resources and impact assessments

  • Consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific, indigenous and local knowledge, as well as innovations and traditional practices;

  • Establish baseline conditions for ecosystem functioning and sustainable use against which measured change can be evaluated;

  • Monitor and evaluate implemented actions to determine if goals and objectives are being achieved;

  • Carry out environmental and social impact assessments before decisions are made on use.

Ecosystem definition

An ecosystem is an interconnected community of living things, including humans, and the physical environment within which they interact


Ecosystem functions are defined as "the capacity of natural processes and components of natural or semi-natural systems to provide goods and services that satisfy human needs." These are generally grouped into four type of functions: production, provision of tourism opportunities, regulation, and the provision of habitats.

Ecosystems as providers of resources

Many components of ecosystems provide resources for direct human consumption including: water for drinking, fish and fruit to eat, reeds to thatch roofs, timber for building, peat and fuelwood for fires. Harvesting ecosystem goods while respecting the production rate and the regenerative capacity of each species can provide sustainable benefits to human society. For example, in many areas fisheries rely heavily on healthy ecosystems and maintaining them is often a fundamental requirement for the local and national economy. In many rural areas, water supply depends largely on water extracted from shallow boreholes or local springs. The aquifers and springs will provide water if areas of recharge are maintained and protected.

Ecosystems as providers of tourism opportunities

Water-based ecosystems provide opportunities for recreation, aesthetic experience and reflection. Recreational uses include fishing, sport hunting, bird-watching, photography, and water sports. Judging by the fact that tourism is a leading world business, the economic value of these can be considerable. Maintaining the wetlands and capitalising on these uses can be a valuable alternative to more disruptive uses and degradation of these ecosystems.

Ecosystems as providers of water regulation

Ecosystems are important regulators of water quantity and water quality. Several types of ecosystems are known to act as hydrological buffers. For example, forested headwater catchments encourage water to infiltrate the soil, reducing rapid runoff which causes floods and soil erosion. Floodplain wetlands store water when rivers over-top their banks, reducing flood risk downstream. The value of these services may be considerable and often technical means of regulating the quantity of flow are much more expensive.

Ecosystems also regulate the hydrological cycle through taking up water and releasing it into the atmosphere. In the Amazon rainforest, 50% of rainfall is derived from local evaporation. If the forest cover is removed, the area can become hotter and drier because water is no longer cycled between the plants and the atmosphere. This can lead to a positive feedback cycle of desertification, with an increasing amount of local water resources being lost. The cycling of water through the forest is an important service for regulating both local and global climate and maintaining local water resources.

Ecosystems not only regulate the quantity of water flow but also regulate its quality. Reedbeds and other wetland plants, for example, are known as important regulators as they remove toxins and excessive nutrients from the water.

Ecosystems as providers of habitats

To sustain the hydrological services of ecosystems requires the maintenance of many biological processes that are the result of complex interactions between soil, water and a multitude of plants, animals and micro-organisms. The functioning of the ecosystem gives rise to a wide diversity of species. Wetlands, for example, support important levels of biodiversity, including over 10,000 species of fish and over 4,000 of amphibians.

The allocation of water resources is an important challenge for society. The problem is to decide how much water should be used for the maintenance of ecosystems to provide natural goods and services and how much water should be used for agriculture, industry and domestic services. To help make this decision, it is essential that the costs and benefits of maintaining ecosystems and direct human uses of water are quantified. Existing techniques to estimate the economic value of specific ecosystem products and services should be used to support decisions on water allocations.


Implementation of the ecosystem approach is consistent with the implementation of integrated water resources management. It is also an important element of the Local Agenda 21 approach as well as of the implementation of the Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Implementation of the ecosystem approach involves diverse types of activities. A summary of priority activities is provided below.

Priority activities

  • Guidelines and local action plans for the conservation and sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems based on an ecosystem approach, taking into account land-use practices and the impacts of use from, and on, other ecosystems;
  • Local activities that ensure that inland surface-water margins maintain their provision of goods and services, through adopting a catchment or groundwater system perspective and fostering ecosystem integrity, hydrological and ecological processes, biological diversity and the quantity and quality of water available for ecosystem maintenance;
  • Freshwater ecosystem management to reduce water resources pollution from point and non-point sources;
  • Adequate scientific, technical and managerial capacities to ensure the conservation and sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems at local, national and international levels;
  • Catchment and groundwater system-wide management initiatives, especially across international boundaries;
  • Legislation to stimulate land owners to set-aside land at margins of freshwater ecosystems;
  • Legislation to ensure equitable access to freshwater ecosystem goods and services;
  • Economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services to assist in the development of incentive measures;
  • Incentives to support the environmentally, economically and socially sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems and removal of perverse incentive measures;
  • Enhanced funding mechanisms, for example, trust funds for the conservation of freshwater ecosystems;
  • Local action programmes on involving user groups and women in developing and implementing freshwater management activities;
  • Water management plans developed through local consultation and including traditional ownership, knowledge and resource use;
  • Training courses for engineering and environmental curricula to include ecosystem management approaches;
  • Capacity-building for local institutions (governmental, NGO, user-groups) to apply ecosystem management guidelines;
  • Training programmes on restoration and rehabilitation of freshwater ecosystems as part of national action programmes;
  • Collection of data on the status of freshwater ecosystems, specifically on sustainable use, ecosystem integrity and biodiversity;
  • Mechanisms (e.g. clearing houses) to provide local managers with appropriate information on the wise use of freshwater ecosystems;
  • Coordination with the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, 1971) to maximise benefits, avoid duplication and extend assistance to developing suitable national water and ecosystem management policies;
  • Follow-up on the decision taken at the CBD - COP 3 to have the Convention on Wetlands as the implementing agency for the conservation of wetlands.

For further information contact:

Dr. Ger Bergkamp
Ecosystem Management Group
IUCN - The World Conservation Union
1196 Gland, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 22 999 0262
Fax: +41 22 999 0025
Shannon Kearns
1400 16 th Street NW
Suite 502
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Tel.: +1 202 797 5454
Fax: +1 202 797 5461
Carole Saint-Laurent
WWF International
c/o WWF Canada
90 Eglinton Ave. East
Suite 504
Toronto, ON M4P 2Z7
Tel.: +1 416 489 8800
Fax: +1 416 489 3611
Dr. Chris Tydeman
WWF - United Kingdom
Panda House
Weyside Park
Godalming, Surrey
Tel.: +44 1483 426 444
Fax: +44 1483 426 409

Related text: "Strategic Approaches to Integrated Freshwater Management -- Recommendations for Action"

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