For several days volunteers in boats had to rescue men and women trapped on roof tops during Jakartas devastating floods in February 2002 (photo by Arie Basuki)
Although forests can play a certain role in delaying and reducing peak floodwater flows at local levels, scientific evidence clearly indicates that forests cannot stop catastrophic large-scale floods, commonly caused by severe meteorological events - the type of events that are often blamed on forest harvesting or conversion to agricultural uses. This in no way diminishes the need for proper management and conservation of upland forests. But it does point toward the critical need for integrated approaches in river-basin management that look beyond simplistic forest-based 'solutions'. To be successful, such integrated approaches must combine various measures in the uplands with those in the lowlands, and work with natural processes and not against them.
An integrated approach to river-basin management recognises the limitations of working only in the uplands to minimise floods or only in the lowlands to reduce their damage. It takes into account that soils of well-managed natural forests and plantations can maintain a higher water-storage capacity than most non-forest soils under similar conditions. They can thus slow the rate of runoff, which in turn helps to minimise flooding in smaller watersheds and of more frequent intermediate events. It also does justice to the multitude of other environmental services that forests provide. Furthermore, an integrated approach recognises that forest conservation and appropriate management are not only important in the upper reaches of Asias watersheds but also in the river basins, where the forests form an important component of wetland ecosystems. Moreover, it recognises the role of maintaining forests on key sites to reduce sediment problems, such as on slip-prone soils and in riparian zones.
This approach integrates land-use management in the uplands with land-use planning, engineering measures, flood preparedness and emergency management in the lowlands. It considers the social and economic needs of communities living in both the mountainous watersheds and the river basins. Integrated management has to be based on the best available scientific knowledge of the causes and the environmental, social and economic impacts of floods. Essentially, this approach should prepare people to live with and adapt to rivers and floods.
Such an integrated management system is the result of an iterative process (Figure 1), which without doubt has many challenges resulting from the trans-boundary nature of major river systems such as the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin. It is also complicated by the large number of different stakeholders who often have very different views on how the problem should be solved, and by the many conflicting uses of the precious resources within a basin.
Figure 1: The iterative process of integrated basin management.
Under the integrated approach, the objectives for the management of the basin are initially formulated for both the lower and upper basin areas. These objectives should be based on local and national priorities, prevailing land uses and the unique characteristics of each basins natural resources. Based on the defined objectives, management plans are formulated for entire basins - which may cross national borders - in close consultation with all stakeholders. The management plan details the activities required to achieve the desired objectives. Planning is appropriately done at two levels - watershed and floodplain - and then integrated to form a cohesive overall management plan (see for example Easter et al. 1986).
The management plan comprises all the activities required to organise land and other resource use within a watershed in the course of providing the goods and services defined by the objectives, while at the same time maintaining and supporting the livelihoods of resident populations. The plan is implemented by all landowners and concerned stakeholders under the guidance of appropriate management bodies and supported by pragmatic policy instruments and innovative financing mechanisms. Examples of such bodies include several river-basin commissions in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the Murray-Darling River basin Commission in Australia, the Rhine and Danube Commissions in Europe, the Red River Basin Commission that links Canada with the USA, and the Mekong River Commission whose member countries are Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Incentives need to be offered to encourage desired land uses and land-management practices and to align private interests with the public good. Compensation needs to be provided to land users negatively affected by the plans. The results of the implementation are monitored and impacts of various policy instruments and interventions assessed, to ensure that the objectives are being achieved and that costs and benefits are equitably shared. The entire process is evaluated on a regular basis and, if necessary, objectives or activities can be adjusted to meet new requirements or expectations. Management objectives can change over time as priorities and land-use practices evolve. This is a dynamic process that ensures, through the various feedback mechanisms, that objectives remain realistic and can be reached without causing unacceptable and unmanageable environmental and socio-economic impacts.
Floods after heavy rain in May 2003, Ranna, Hambantota District, Sri Lanka (photo by Sophie Nguyen Khoa, IWMI)