"People Oriented River Basin Management: An NGO Vision"
BothENDS, Executive Summary
Serious degradation of river ecosystems directly undermines the livelihoods of a majority of rural
households and can spell disaster for urban households. The World Water Vision process has now
created a Vision and Framework for Action that could guide water policy for decades to come.
NGOs working on river and water issues and with communities affected by large scale river
development schemes have serious concerns about the Vision process, its products and the
priorities detailed in the official documents, and have therefore come up with an alternative
The NGO Vision is based on the premise that access to and control over natural resources offers
the best guarantee for the well-being and survival of a vast majority of people. Women and men
with sufficient access to natural resources to meet their basic needs generally do not consider
themselves poor. Currently, large groups of people, such as the landless, smallholders, urban poor
and indigenous people , suffer disproportionately from the large scale distortion and degradation
of river basins. The NGO Vision urges decision makers to give absolute priority to maintaining
people's 'sustainable livelihoods' and the preservation of the integrity of all water related
The NGO Vision calls for the equitable incorporation of gender considerations in all aspects of
water management. Due to different gender roles, women and men are affected differently by the
same policies. Irrespective of their social status, women tend to be excluded from decision making
in water management, thereby denying their role as major water users and managers. The NGO
Vision stresses the need to address women's involvement explicitly, recognising that their social
and economic activities are of a significantly different character than men's.
"Towards people oriented river basin management" questions the prevailing assumptions and
principles that determine river basin management today, and reveals how they are the direct
causes for today's unsustainable use of river basin ecosystems, in the South as well as the North.
The NGO Vision questions three predominant assumptions, which drive today's river basin management as well as the Vision and Framework for Action documents:
The notion that 'development' is to be achieved solely through economic growth. Natural resources, such as river ecosystems, are considered as mere commodities. The fact that the majority of rural people in developing countries and transition countries -especially women-, are not in a position to satisfy their basic needs through the market place, is consistently denied. In order to maintain their livelihoods, these people directly depend on common property resources within the river basin: grazing lands, fisheries, forests and water bodies.
It should be stressed that markets can not offer a universal answer to all challenges of river basin management, as they are only related to one of the many aspects of the human-ecological relationship.
The principle of 'eminent domain', by which the state has a legitimate right to override local objections and expropriate private or communal property in the name of 'national interest'. In daily practice, when exercising this right there is a strong bias towards centralised and capital intensive structures which transfers water to urban and export-oriented industries. In fact, local decisions are frequently overruled to satisfy the demands of an extremely small political and economic elite. The implementation of these decisions tend to cause extreme damage to a country's natural resources, thus affecting rural and urban marginalised groups disproportionately.
Opportunity for effective participation by local stakeholders and women is lacking. Although
the need for participation is recognised by the authors of the official Vision and Framework
for Action, there is still a huge void of political commitment to give all stakeholders an equal
chance to participate in planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Far too often,
planners and decision makers abuse the term 'participation' to legitimise blueprint arrangement
and infrastructure developments.
To help counter these trends the NGO Vision presents a range of actions to counteract the
negative impacts of today's water management and to create the basis for water management that
does support people's livelihoods. These actions provide an answer to what should be considered
one of the key questions of the entire Vision process and the ensuing Framework for Action:
"How can we enable people to obtain adequate and equitable supplies of water and energy far into
the future, reduce the destructiveness of floods (and droughts), and protect the watersheds from
degradation?" (McCully, 1996)
The NGO Vision highlights the following key actions:
A new goal for river basin management
1.The primary goal of river basin management should be to enable rivers and watersheds to
perform their many vital ecological functions and to benefit people who depend on them for
the maintenance of their livelihoods. This calls for governments, donors and multilateral
organisations to seriously analyse the social and environmental impacts of unchecked,
politically motivated, large scale economic activities on river basins.
Full participation in decision making
2.Participation can no longer be limited to the current shallow levels, which do not allow for effective participation of women and politically or economically marginalised groups in society. In order to achieve genuine stakeholder participation governments, donors and multilateral organisations should be prepared to even out the balance of power, disempowering dominant groups and bringing the marginalised fully into the process.
3.Existing knowledge of local and indigenous people and women should be considered at the outset of the decision making process. Small scale management approaches -often based on locally developed technologies- should be seriously considered as viable alternatives for large scale infrastructure projects and technology driven management approaches.
4.To guide the decision making process, a set of alternative indicators of 'development' should be
developed and implemented in collaboration with all stakeholders.
Land and water rights
5.Legal establishment of user and property rights of local communities and indigenous peoples as well as of the landless, is a precondition to genuine participatory decision making processes and should be established as a pre-requisite of any intervention in river basin ecosystems.
6.Whereas political recognition and security of customary right systems is vital, the empowerment
of women and the promotion of gender equality, requires progressive legal reforms that allows
women to improve their overall position.
Institutions and capacity building
7.Efforts to protect or repair the interests of local people and their environment invariably start with great investment of time and commitment to foster unity and a common direction within the community, to strengthen or build local institutions and to secure legal standing and political commitment towards their recognition.
8.It is crucial to pay more attention to the degree of gender-sensitivity of existing and newly created institutions, and the adequate representation of women therein.
9.Governments, donor agencies and NGOs need to support the building of open, accountable and
10.It is urgent to create the appropriate framework for integrated ecosystem management. In relation to freshwater ecosystems, this implies a focus on river basins. This framework has to allow for the recognition and conservation of the multiple functions of watersheds, and thus for an integrated land and water management.
11.The choice of technology should follow a planning process which begins at the point of origin
located in the upper most reaches of the river basin, then proceeds downwards along the minor
and the major tributaries, then continues along the main stream till the lower reaches of the
Technology and planning
12.It is essential to offer official support for local and indigenous knowledge, to start more systematic inventories and analysis of existing water management practices and to gain insight into the wealth of traditional and innovative land and water resources management approaches.
13.Current bottom-up initiatives should be taken seriously and compared to the blue-print
approaches of the -often top-down- creation of River Basin Authorities.
14.The restoration of degraded watersheds and the implementation of strict controls on destructive actions -logging, industrial pollution, canalisation, etc.- and a halt to government and multilateral support for these activities, should become a major element of future management plans and policies.
15.Mechanisms of flexible funding, research and other forms of encouragement need to be
directed at traditional and modern agricultural and land restoration techniques, giving first
priority to strengthening of the position of marginalised groups.
Gender as a means and an end
16.To ensure equitable planning processes, there needs to be a clear understanding of women's roles on the household, village, watersheds and river basin levels. Better understanding of gender roles will give better information about water uses, and will enhance the effectiveness of institutions for water management. Only by knowing country and region specific gender issues will it be possible to design decision making and management processes which truly accommodate women.
17.Indicators which reflect the degree in which the well being and socio-economic position of women is affected should be made key indicators to actual decision making.