III. Themes

The central focus of FAO/Netherlands Conference is on promoting sustainable management of water for food and ecosystems, based on a stakeholder-centred approach that facilitates sound, efficient and equitable decision making in the assessment, allocation and regulation of water resources, in terms of both quantity and quality.

The water needs of food and agriculture have to be reconciled with the conservation needs of ecosystems, and also integrated with demand from other water users, such as the energy, navigation and industry sectors. Trade-offs over water allocation must balance the competing needs of rural and urban areas and of productive and non-productive uses, and related policy priorities from the local to the international level. The conference will contribute to the new prospect of water for food and ecosystems.

Within the central focus on "Supporting stakeholders to manage water for food and ecosystems," the Conference aims at determining how local practices and national policies can be supported. This process needs to be based on a solid understanding of past local experiences, using local cases to identify "success stories" and arrive at recommendations for different agro-ecosystems.

The Conference will focus on three interrelated themes:

  1. Fostering Implementation: Know-how for Action: We need to know more about the complex interactions of water for food and ecosystems. Increased knowledge, reliable information and greater awareness, will help improve the capacity of stakeholders and ensure that sound decisions are made, mostly at local level, on inputs (water quantity and quality), outputs and impacts. Through focussing on best practices, this theme will contribute, in a practical way, to implementing our commitments to effectively balance water for livelihoods and resilient ecosystems. Key questions facing the Conference, therefore, are: a) how to enhance effective stakeholder involvement and b) how to integrate and apply knowledge for managing the intertwined relation between water for food and ecosystems?
  2. A "New Economy" for Water for Food and Ecosystem. Inputs, services and impacts must then be analysed in terms of their social, economic, and environmental values for each stakeholder. The goal is to help all involved stakeholders make well informed, transparent decisions on the allocation of natural resources, and ensure that their decisions are consistent with higher level (national/cross boundary) priorities. This will lead to a new prospect, "a new economy" of Water for Food and Ecosystems. Some key questions include a) how to assess the various positive and negative externalities of water use? and b) How to ensure that the diverse value of water is included in decision making processes by stakeholders?
  3. The Enabling Environment. Finally, promising institutional and managerial arrangements must be adopted at local and national/cross boundary levels to enable sustainable water management for food and ecosystems, equitable representation of all stakeholders in the decision making process, and consistency at all levels. key questions facing the conference are a) What institutional arrangements and policies help to enable local stakeholders to manage their resources and to accommodate the diverse users and uses of water? b) How can institutions and organizations offer a platform for joint decision making/negotiation involving fishers, pastoralists, rainfed agriculturists, industries, that includes the specific needs of nature and environment?

THEME 1 - Fostering Implementation: Know-how for action

Generating knowledge on needs and impacts to support stakeholder management of water for food and ecosystems


Ecosystem services include the production of food and goods and the provision of clean water and, ultimately, play a major role in determining the development prospects of nations. Ecosystems are interconnected by water and set the eco-hydrological conditions for biological diversity in any habitat. Crops, trees, cattle, fish, and other biomass production depend on accessible renewable freshwater. Humans have dramatically altered the carrying capacity of ecosystems through increased food production and other sectoral outputs, often neglecting the supply of goods that may be of equal importance - such as clean water, timber, biodiversity or flood control.
There is a strong need to move beyond the current focus on "trade-offs between competing uses", which creates a dichotomy between water for food production and water for welfare-supporting ecosystem services. Reconciling food and ecosystems is not a matter of allocating sufficient water to each, nor of making compromises in the use of a shared and limited supply. It is really about reconciling needs and services for both systems. Food systems need to be managed as ecosystems with attached services, while ecosystems need to be considered not only in their environmental dimensions but also in their capacity to produce food or generate incomes, which in turn alleviate poverty and hunger.

This integration has rarely been factored into decision-making, mainly due to the lack of information and to inadequate institutional arrangements. While information about environmental conditions and pressures on ecosystems is available for many areas, this information often lacks the coherence, comprehensiveness and integration needed to support policy and management decisions. Sectoral approaches make sense when trade-offs among goods and services are modest. However, ecosystem and agricultural management today must meet conflicting goals and take into account the linkages among water and environmental problems. Aggregate benefits from the bundle of goods and services produced by an ecosystem would, otherwise, be hidden in a sector-oriented assessment.

We do not know the actual freshwater requirements for generating key ecosystem services appropriated by the present global human population. Using freshwater more efficiently in existing ecosystems and food production requires a shift in the management of water to combining water resources management and an integrated ecosystems approach.

The stakeholder process of management of water for food and eco-systems needs to be based on solid, reliable knowledge about the needs, the outputs and impacts for various uses that depend on water. Key questions facing the Conference, therefore, are:

a) How to integrate and apply knowledge for managing the intertwined relation between water for food and ecosystems?

b) How to enhance effective stakeholder involvement?

Drawing lessons from experience

The Conference will seek to learn more about the role of water in the integration of food and ecosystems. Local cases will help draw lessons from past experiences, identify successful approaches and make recommendations for future knowledge generation and for making knowledge available to support stakeholder management. Some questions to be addressed are:

a) Integrated knowledge for managing the intertwined relation between water for food and ecosystems

  • What are the water needs/requirements of ecosystems in terms of quantity, quality and timing, and how can they be accounted for in water allocation/regulation policies and practices?
  • What are the positive sum effects (positive externalities) of ecosystems - in terms of water retention, water treatment, erosion control etc. - and how can they effectively be accounted for and nurtured in "environmental service" (payments)?
  • What are the impacts for the various ecosystems, in terms of water quantity and quality, of agricultural development and practices (in rainfed, irrigated, agro-pastoralist, intensive and subsistence systems), and how can they be off-set and managed by diversified but comprehensive strategies?
  • Which innovations have proven effective in making optimum use of the symbiotic relations between agricultural production and ecosystems conservation?
  • How can we achieve water productivity gains in agriculture without compromising ecosystem water requirements?
  • What technologies are available for ecosystem design, engineering and rehabilitation, and how effective are they in improving ecosystem functioning, services, and productivity?

The Conference will also investigate how stakeholders use knowledge and information in their decisions on water management, and which forms of water governance ensure that decisions by individuals and organizations are made for the benefit of all.

b) Effective stakeholder involvement

  • How to mobilize existing groups and networks to contribute to the further development and implementation of an integrated approach to the management of water, land and biodiversity?
  • Participation in (management) institutions requires social, and often capital investment, which may represent a practical entry-barrier for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society. How can IWRM be institutionalized with the inclusion of the poor and vulnerable?
  • How are local stakeholders using knowledge and information on water for food and ecosystems in their decision making processes?
  • How do stakeholders invest in knowledge and information development to feed the process?
  • How can we raise the capacity of the stakeholders to increase their knowledge?
  • What is the role of intermediate and national stakeholders in ensuring the process of wise use?
  • In what format should knowledge be made available to local stakeholders?
  • What governance set up suits best local conditions without compromising effectiveness and consistency at upper level?

THEME 2 - A "new economy" of Water for Food and Ecosystems

Making well-informed, transparent and fair choices, based on appropriate methodologies for assessing multi-dimensional water values.


Intensifying competition for water resources increases the need to account for the value of water in its various forms and uses. Increased water scarcities call for more prudent usage to ensure that it is utilized where it has most value and in ways that reflects this value. Stakeholders need to be supported in making sound decisions on the use and management of water resources, and to make choices between various - potentially conflicting - needs. Key questions here include: how to reconcile the water needs of the environment and the maintenance of biodiversity with water needs for economic activities such as agriculture, industry, hydropower and recreation? How to assess the various positive and negative externalities of water use, and how to ensure that these values are included in decision making? How to support stakeholders in managing water in a way that reflects the economic, social and environmental values of all its uses?
Currently, numerous reliable valuation methodologies are available to support stakeholders in making well-informed, transparent and fair choices on water management. The question, however, is to how these methodologies work in practice, and how values are being "taken on board" by local and national stakeholders in their management of competing water uses. This conference theme examines the possibilities for a "new economy" for water for food and ecosystems by learning from successful practices. A good understanding is required of the productivity and socio-economic value of current and feasible water uses that can be weighed in decision-making processes.

Drawing lessons from experience

This theme examines the role of valuation in cases where attempts have been made to manage water in a way that reflects its different values, such as Payment for Environmental Service schemes, quotas, water markets or state-controlled allocation and distribution systems. Questions to be addressed :

  • How are stakeholders valuing water-related services for food and ecosystems
  • Which "vulnerable groups" and ecosystem components are insufficiently valued and need a more equal representation of their values in decision-making?
  • How are existing valuation methodologies being used in these "real-world" water management processes?
  • How are those who generally have no strong voice in the decision making - such as the rural poor and the environment itself - expressing their water values?
  • Do current water allocation mechanisms/decisions reflect the values different stakeholders place on water? Who is losing out? Could this be corrected and how? What about the "ethics" of water allocation?
  • How have valuation methodologies or tools helped stakeholders to make choices between different or conflicting uses?
  • Does a more explicit and transparent valuation help stakeholders to reconcile potentially conflicting needs and how does it help stakeholders in identifying ways to add value through their water management decisions?
  • In the end, does valuation help to improve the economic productivity as well as the distributional equity of water uses? Who benefits from the water-related services in those systems, and how are the benefits distributed among water uses?

From these experiences, lessons can then be learned on issues such as:

  • How to take into account different aspects of ecosystem services that are currently underestimated by, or invisible to, decision makers (e.g. the value of fish in rice-based systems)
  • Which methodologies and approaches to valuation of water work well in practice for different agro-ecosystems?
  • How can they help stakeholders to ensure productive use of water resources, to negotiate trade-offs and compensation and to create value among uses?
  • How can stakeholders and needs be supported to express and voice their values? (e.g. guaranteeing environmental base flows to meet ecosystem needs? Water as a human right? How to ensure food security for all?)
  • What are the current gaps in valuation processes?
  • How can water valuation principles be translated into allocation decisions, policy instruments and institutional structures (i.e. can water use values be correlated to water charges, payment for environmental services, rights-based water markets?). This last question overlaps and links with the third Conference theme: Institutions.

THEME 3 - The Enabling Environment

Providing the institutional framework that enables stakeholders to manage their resources


The decision making processes of local stakeholder are embedded in a patchwork of systems of larger scale. Sound national policies and institutions are essential for successful water management by stakeholders, and for framing and aggregating local arrangements in a consistent way. The sectoral structures that characterize most existing institutions are often ill-suited to provide an effective forum for local stakeholders in managing water for food security and ecosystems in an integrated and sustainable way. What institutional arrangements and policies help to enable local stakeholders to manage their resources and to accommodate the multiple users and uses of water?
While institutional reforms have been implemented or are being planned in various countries, there is clearly no universal blueprint for their successful design. Therefore, there is need to take stock of the impacts of the various institutional reform processes, and to see how the different institutional reforms have affected the ability of local stakeholders to manage their water resources.

Drawing lessons from experience

This theme will draw lessons from past and ongoing institutional reform processes, to see how different institutional arrangements help to improve water management. The organizational and institutional aspects to be included in these cases are wide and varied. However, most will have in common that they were formulated in response to global pressures towards decentralization, privatization and liberalization of national institutions. Examples of such institutional reforms are the introduction of water markets, public-private partnerships, instruments such as pricing and the polluter-pays principle, decentralized structures such as Water User Associations, and rights-based approaches.

Some relevant questions for case analysis are:

  • How do institutions and organizations affect - positively and negatively - stakeholder management practices?
  • What is the impact of different institutional arrangements on the specific needs of the environment and of vulnerable groups?
  • Participation in management institutions requires social, and often capital, investment of participants, which may represent a practical entry-barrier. How did the institutions enable the participation of the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society?
  • Who in these institutions represent the rural poor and the ecosystems?
  • How do different institutional arrangements promote or prevent cooperation and integration across sectors and across scales (i.e. simultaneous multiple uses of water)?
  • How are values and voices converted into decisions within stakeholder processes? And how can we ensure balanced decision making?
  • Are local (sectoral) institutions, such as Water User Associations and Irrigation Unions, appropriate for non-irrigation users?
  • Are market-based structures (water markets, pricing, public-private partnerships) appropriate to safeguard public needs? Conversely, are centralized management systems fulfilling these needs?
  • What are the options and limitations in transplanting institutional arrangements among countries and among agro-ecosystems?

From these experiences, lessons can be drawn on issues such as:

  • How can institutions and organizations offer a platform for joint decision making/negotiation involving fishers, pastoralists, rainfed agriculturalists, industries, that includes the specific needs of nature and environment?
  • How do we craft institutions that support water management by local stakeholders - including poor and vulnerable groups - and ensure consideration of ecosystem needs?
  • How can we ensure that (new) local water institutions fit in the existing formal and informal institutional structures?
  • How can we assist vulnerable groups in developing their capacity to become a meaningful actor in the water management process?
  • How can cross-sectoral, multi-user oriented policies be crafted in order to effectively enable public and civil participation and collaboration?
  • What are the benefits and limitations of different institutional models?
  • What new institutional and governance roles and qualities are required for reconciling water for food and ecosystems, planning water supply and demand/productivity across the sectors of water use, and accommodating decentralized planning and development with centralized regulation of water resources?
  • How can we translate lessons from other countries and regions into the design of more effective, locally responsive and flexible water management institutions?