Aquatic Ecosystems: Conservation, Restoration and Management
Ramachandra T.V.
Energy & Wetlands Research Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012


Integrated aquatic ecosystem management requires proper study, sound understanding and effective management of water systems and their internal relations (groundwater, surface water and return water; quantity and quality; biotic components; upstream and downstream). The water systems should be studied and managed as part of the broader environment and in relation to socio-economic demands and potentials, acknowledging the political and cultural context. The water itself should be seen as a social, environmental, and economic resource, and each of these three aspects must be represented in the political discourse. This discourse should reflect the interests of local communities and people, their livelihoods and their aquatic environments. Users and managers at all levels must be allowed to have an input. The aim of integrated aquatic system management is to ensure the sustained multi­functional use of the system. The basic water needs of people and ecosystems should be fulfilled first. Essential ecological and physical processes should be protected. Moreover, the effects on the receiving water bodies (seas, lakes, deltas, coastal zones) should be paid full attention. The following points (Ramachandra, T.V. et al., 2002) need to be stressed as crucial for sustainable management:

  • Should be applied at catchment level. The catchment is the smallest complete hydrological unit of analysis and management. Integrated catchment management (ICM), therefore, becomes the practical operating approach. Although this approach is obviously sound, and finds wide acceptance, too narrow an interpretation should be avoided.
  • Decentralisation should be pursued as much as possible in order to bring river basin management as close as possible to the individual citizens and facilitate local variation in response to differing local conditions and preferences. Decentralisation is also possible in case of tasks with a supra-local scope if the decentralised governments concerned co-operate (e.g. panchayaths in a river basin) or if they are supervised by a higher­ level government body. The process should be transparent, phased and planned.
  • It is critical to integrate water and environmental management. This principle is widely and strongly supported. Integrated aquatic ecosystem management can be strengthened through the integration of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA' s), water resources modeling and land use planning. It should also be understood that a catchment or watershed approach implies that water should be managed alongside the management of codependent natural resources, namely soil, forests, air and biota.
  • Through a systems approach. A true systems approach recognizes the individual components as well as the linkages between them, and that a disturbance at one point in the system will be translated to other parts of the system. Sometimes the effect on another part of the system may be indirect, and may be damped out due to natural resilience and disturbance. Sometimes the effect will be direct, significant and may increase in degree as it moves through the system. While systems analysis is appropriate, analyses and models that are too complex to be translated into useful knowledge should be avoided.
  • The only form of river basin management that directly affects the river basin and its users is operational management (the application of regulatory, economic and communicative policy instruments and concrete activities such as infrastructure management). Consequently, it should playa pivotal role in any river basin management strategy. Planning, policies, analytical tools and institutional systems play an essential role as deciders an9 facilitators. They can improve operational management, promote a basin-wide, intersectoral long-term approach, and in this way further the sustained multi-functional use of the basins concerned (Rajinikanth, R. & Ramachandra, T.V., 2001).
  • Communicative instruments for operational management, such as voluntary agreements, can help to improve the implementation of river basin plans and policies, but they only work in relation to regulation and compliance mechanisms.
  • Tradable water rights can be an important tool for river basin management, but they are only effective if a number of conditions are met:
    1. The basic water demands of citizens and ecosystems are safeguarded.
    2. The rights should be defined and agreed upon.
    3. Utilisation of the rights should be physically possible.
    4. Monopoly is to be prevented.
  • Full participation by all stakeholders, including workers and the community. This will involve new institutional arrangements. There must be a high level of autonomy, but this must at the same time be associated with transparency and accountability for all decisions. Care should be taken to ensure that those participating in any catchment management structure do indeed represent a designated group or sector of society. It is also important to ensure that representatives provide feedback to the constituencies they represent. Integrated aquatic ecosystem management seeks to combine interests, priorities and disciplines as a multi-stakeholder planning and management process for natural resources within the catchment ecosystem, centered on water. Driven bottom-up by local needs and priorities, and top-down by regulatory responsibilities, it must be adaptive, evolving dynamically with changing conditions:
  • Attention to social dimensions. This requires attention to, amongst other things, the use of social impact assessments, workplace indicators and other tools to ensure that the social dimension of a sustainable water policy is implemented. This will include the promotion of equitable access, enhanced role of women, and the employment and income implications of change.
  • Capacity building. At many levels in the process--even at the govern­mental level-stakeholders lack the necessary knowledge and skills for full application of integrated aquatic ecosystem management. Community stakeholders may not be familiar with the concept of water resource management, catchment management, corporate governance, and their role in these. Capacity building categories include education and awareness raising about water; information resources for policy making; regulations and compliance; basic infrastructure; and market stability. Early and ongoing stakeholder collaboration and communication in capacity building is also important from the viewpoint of "leveling the playing field" in anticipation of disputes that may arise. Filling strategic skills/capacity gaps supports integrated aquatic ecosystem management, facilitates dispute resolution, and builds practical understanding of the scope of sustainable natural resource development challenges and opportunities.
  • The capacity of all institutions needs to be maintained and/or developed by means of short-term and long-term programmes (including postgraduate education and curricula development).
  • Availability of information and the capacity to use it to make policy and predict responses. This implies, firstly, sufficient information on hydro­logical, bio-physical, economic, social and environmental characteristics of a catchment to allow informed policy choices to be made; and secondly, some ability to predict the most important responses of the catchment system to factors such as effluent discharges, diffuse pollution, changes in agricultural or other land use practices and the building of water retaining structures. The latter hinges on the adequacy of scientific models. It is recognized that predicting ecosystem response to perturbation with reasonable confidence is severely taxing current scientific capabilities, stimulating ongoing research.
  • Full-cost pricing complemented by targeted subsidies. This principle was strongly urged by the World Water Council at The Hague, the rationale being that users do not value water provided free or almost free and have no incentives to conserve water. Wide support for this principle was engendered, but also significant opposition from those who felt that the interests of the poor might not be sufficiently protected, even under an associated subsidy system, however well designed. Opposing views held that full-cost pricing, when applied in its narrowest sense, offends the principle that water is a public good, a human right, and not simply an economic good. Reiterating: The economic sustainability of water and sanitation services depends largely and appropriately on the recovery of costs through user fees or tariffs that are equitably assigned based on ability-to-pay. Under-served or unserved, marginalized users in many places already pay high financial costs of not having safe piped water, for example, because they are forced to pay for water trucked-in by suppliers. This water may be of dubious quality yet is expensive.
  • Charges are effective and efficient means to finance aquatic ecosystem management (cost recovery) and reduce water use and pollution if the basic water needs of the poor are safeguarded, e.g. by means of block tariffs.
  • Central government support through the creation and maintenance of an enabling environment. The role of central government in integrated catchment management should be one of leadership, aimed at facilitating and coordinating the development and transfer of skills, and assisting with the provision of technical advice and financial support, to local groups and individuals. Where specific areas of responsibility fall outside the mandate of a single government department, appropriate institutional arrangements are required to ensure effective inter-departmental collaboration.
  • Traditional regimes and institutions should be recognised and integrated in aquatic ecosystem management. Adoption of the best existing technologies and practices-BMPs (best management practices).
  • Reliable and sustained financing. In order to ensure successful imple­mentation of integrated aquatic ecosystem management approaches, there should be a clear and long-term commitment from government to provide financial and human resources support. This is complemented by income from a healthy water and sanitation market, especially when local provid­ers of goods and services that support the water sector are active players, and when there is active reinvestment in the sector.
  • Equitable allocation of water resources. This implies improved decision­ making, which is technically and scientifically informed, and can facilitate the resolution of conflicts over contentious issues. There are existing tools (e.g. multi-criteria analysis) to help decision-making in terms of balancing social, ecological and economic considerations. These should be tested and applied.
  • The recognition of water as an economic good. The recognition of water as an economic good is central to achieving equitable allocation and sustainable usage. Water allocations should be optimized by benefit and cost, and aim to maximize water benefits to society per unit cost. For example, low value uses could be reallocated to higher value uses such as basic drinking water supplies, if water quality permits. Similarly, lower quality water can be allocated to agricultural or industrial use.
  • There may be a distinct role for private entities (publicly or privately owned) in the provision of water services and water management. Private ownership of water infrastructure is a controversial issue that needs to be carefully explored.
  • Strengthening the role of women in water management. A review by the World Bank of 121 water projects showed that ensuring women's participation in decision-making positively affects both project quality and sustainability ( ).
  • Floods not only cause suffering but also support life. Flood management should not be based solely on building dykes and dams. It needs to be based on strategies that use both structural and non-structural methods. The strategy should balance all interests involved and be based on an integrated assessment, of the environmental, economic and human costs and benefits of these alternatives, including their potential contribution to drought mitigation and including the possibilities that they offer for nature.
  • The ultimate goal of pollution control is to close substance cycles and in this way prevent pollution. A mix of instruments for regulation and compliance can be used to move into this direction and solve urgent pollution problems: waste control, process and emission standards, and a water quality approach. The exact mix should reflect inter-alia the local management capacity and the availability of water quality data and other data (Ramachandra T.V. et al., 2001).
  • Effective aquatic ecosystem management requires sound data, information and knowledge, including both data on surface and groundwater (quantity and quality) and social and economic data. Collection and processing of relevant data, easy accessibility and broad dissemination are eminent tasks of river basin management. To increase policy relevance, data should be aggregated into meaningful information, for example in the form of indicators and systems for benchmarking. Compliance monitoring (reporting, reviewing and evaluating) is very important for promoting the implementation of plans.
  • Sustainable aquatic resources development and management depends mainly on proper planning, implementation, operation and maintenance, which is possible with Geographic Information System (GIS) and Remote Sensing techniques, complement and supplement ground data collection in various facets of different kinds of water resources projects. The synoptic large area repetitive coverage provided by satellite sensors provide appropriate database.
  • To support aquatic ecosystem management, a new analytical model should be developed that can aggregate socio-economic, political, institutional and technological potentials and hydrological constraints. This model should furthermore be capable of evaluating the actual management capacity.
  • To support strategic planning, methods for analytical support should be developed that:
    1. cover the whole basin and all significant impacts;
    2. specifically consider the socio-economic processes that affect the basin;
    3. predict the socio-economic effects of alternative strategies; and
    4. present the issues in such a way that people can understand them.
  • Methods for analytical support should furthermore reflect the fact that policy analysis can never rely on quantitative information only. Moreover, these methods should be transparent and flexible, promote policy learning by all actors, and facilitate negotiation processes. Appropriate methods may include argumentative policy analysis and role-playing supported by a computer model of the natural system and the socio-economic effects.
  • There is a large role for appropriate decentralised information systems and networks that can promote interaction among sectors, provide a basis for consistent technical studies, help communication with the public, and stimulate participation.
  • To implement the general principles of the integrated aquatic ecosystem management requires a cyclic policy development approach. Such an approach would include the following steps - Assessment of institutions, needs and resources, planning, implementation, compliance monitoring and evaluation.

Acknowledgements: The financial assistance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Commonwealth of Learning, Canada and Indian Institute of Science is acknowledged. I thank Mr. H.S. Sudhira for reading this manuscript and providing useful suggestions.