Talking with an Expert on Rivers' Needs for Water

Sunday, June 15, 2003

From World Rivers Review, June 2003

Jackie King has studied southern African rivers and wetlands for 26 years. A freshwater ecologist at the University of Cape Town, she is a specialist on the impacts of dams on rivers and an expert in the emerging field of environmental flow assessments – studies that determine the range of impacts to a river from reduced river flows. King's studies on South African rivers' environmental flow requirements influenced the writing of the South African Water Law, which requires the maintenance of an "ecological reserve" of water in all of the country’s major aquatic ecosystems. King also led the recently completed study for rivers affected by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. International Rivers' Ryan Hoover interviewed King at the Environmental Flows for River Systems conference held at the University of Cape Town in 2003.

Environmental flow requirements (EFR) have major implications for how rivers are used and managed. Could you explain a bit how they relate to dams specifically?

JK: Over 200 EFR methodologies have been developed throughout the world, and dams have been the major driver behind many of them. There are two major kinds of these dam-related EFRs, and they are about equally common. Firstly, there are many countries that are still building dams and that will continue to do so throughout this century. This means that there are a whole lot of flow assessments that could be done before a dam is built or even before it is designed. Then there is another kind of flow assessment that is done for dams which could be done to rehabilitate a river to the extent that the design of the dam allows that to happen. In Australia, they are looking at flow restoration methods, which would put water back that has been taken away by dams. In South Africa, however, the drive has mostly been to do flow assessments on rivers where we expect to build dams. Now that we have studied many of those rivers, we are starting to look at existing dams to see how we can change them for the benefit of communities and ecosystems downstream.

Are there other places where EFRs have actually changed the operation of a dam?

JK: I think that it is very common in the USA now, because the major era of dam construction in the US is over. The best sites have been taken, and the biggest rivers have been dammed. They’re now looking into how to manage those dams in a more equitable way. The relicensing of hydroelectric power schemes in North America has presented an opportunity to have a complete re-look at how the dams have damaged the river. Some re-licensing processes have included vast changes in how dams are allowed to operate in the future because of the concerns and unhappiness of a whole load of stakeholders who weren’t listened to originally.

What are the main challenges to implementing EFRs?  

JK: Political will and collaboration between countries where there are shared rivers. These are problems because countries have different agendas and are suspicious of each other. It’s for this reason that I would like to coin another term to describe EFRs. We started with “instream flows” and then we moved on to “environmental flows” and I think it is time to move on to another term. I’m not sure what it would be yet, but it might be something like “managed river flows.” Many people are scared of the term “environmental flows.” The term “environmental” is a very peaceful term for me, but it’s not for a whole lot of other people who are going to be involved in decision-making in particular. They think it is just about fish, and I think we have something here that’s much more powerful than that. We have a tool which we can use to describe the whole range of options for how people could live in their catchments in the future. It’s a tool which allows us to say, “If you do this in this Country A, this will be the consequence in Country B for the river and for the people. However, if you do this there will be this consequence…” What this process is about is putting holistic options on the table about how to manage flows for everything and everyone.  

The Lesotho Instream Flow Requirement study has been described as a benchmark study in many ways because of its complexity and comprehensiveness. You and your team were very instrumental in that process. What are some of the lessons that have been learned from that experience?

JK: The first lesson is that flow assessment should be done right at the very beginning of the planning stage. It shouldn’t be something you do after the design of the dam is finished, because it should be the flow assessment that allows you to see which options are possible. Another thing to do is to compare a number of different flow options and their results for the river and people. Then you add on to that the economic implications of each of those flow options. On top of that you add which ones would be acceptable to a wide range of stakeholders such as biodiversity treaties, people who run river rafting trips, departments of tourism and others. So lots of options must be put up front to let everybody understand what their choices are and what the implications are. You might come across a group of farmers who say, “Oh, we’d like the river to look like such and such with all the nice fish in it.” So we say, “Okay, that means you’ll need to eradicate 50% of the irrigated land in this catchment.” This could change their opinions considerably. Stakeholders need to have all of that spelled out so they understand the full range of implications. Then you know what you’re going to build and how you’re going to design it. To do it the other way round doesn’t make any sense.

When a community learns that there is to be an IFR process in their catchment, what should they know about the process, what should they be aware of? What are some things that environmental activists should be aware of?

JK: I think there should be a public participation process that starts right at the very beginning as well. Communities should be voicing their concerns early on, so that the people who are doing the studies and creating the scenarios make sure that every scenario contains a bit of information about something that someone is worried about. If someone is worried about their river rafting business, or a Red List fish species, you say, “In option 1, this is what it means for the river rafting and this is what it means for the fish. In option 2, this is what it means…” So, right from the beginning we need to know everybody’s concerns in order that they be reflected in the options. Then they need to find representatives among themselves, which is incredibly difficult, but essential if their concerns are to be addressed. If stakeholders can effectively do these things, they stand a better chance of influencing decision-making and achieving their desired result for their catchment.