The impact of misconceptions on Asian watershed management policies

The concepts underlying integrated water resource management (IWRM) were developed in the early 1990s. These are now supported by all development organizations, and are seen as the prerequisites for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Experience of these policies in different parts of the world, however, suggests that there have been perverse policy outcomes in many situations. The following are some examples:

  • In Southeast Asia, about half a million livelihoods have been lost because of logging bans based of misperceptions about forest and flood interactions.
  • In India, watershed development projects implemented with unsound understanding of land and water interactions are having negative affects on poorer people, including reduced access to water from common property water pans, unsustainable rates of groundwater depletion, and catchment closures with serious downstream and environmental impacts.
  • In China, afforestation under the Natural Forest Protection Programme (NFPP) and the Sloping Land Conversion Programme (SLCP) was driven by very optimistic perceptions about the benefits of forests on the water environment. These programmes may be damaging rural livelihoods, disadvantaging minority ethnic groups, reducing downstream and transnational water flows, and reducing food production.

A major challenge for the development community is how to implement IWRM concepts in a wider resource management context. Implementation of these well-meaning concepts involves complex and messy real-world situations in which it is important to:

  • understand how the belief systems underlying scientific and public perceptions have evolved within different stakeholder groups, and understand how these beliefs may be influenced to enable more science-based policy development;
  • develop the management support tools - ranging from simple dissemination tools to detailed, robust and defensible hydrological models - needed to help implement the new land and water policies;
  • understand better the impacts of land and water-related policies on the poorest in society; many existing policies may not benefit the poor significantly, and may even result in perverse outcomes;
  • understand better and recognize how different land and water-related policies may affect the ownership of water resources; watershed development policies that promote increased water infiltration may be transferring what would have effectively been a common property resource - the water running into a communally owned village tank (reservoir) or the river (a government-owned resource) - into an effectively privately owned resource belonging to a landowner who can afford to install electrically pumped groundwater supplies, or a forest owner whose forest consumes more water than most other non-irrigated land uses;
  • develop guidelines for best practices in land and water management, based on cross-regional experiences of research and policy development, which could include the development of better management tools and the sharing of knowledge through bridging research and policy networks.
  • Adapted from I.R. Calder. 2006. Watershed management: can we incorporate more evidence-based policies? In B. Swallow, N. Okono, M. Achouri and L. Tennyson, eds. Preparing for the next generation of watershed management programmes and projects. Proceedings of the African Workshop. Nairobi, 8 to 10 October 2003. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 8. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007