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Front. Environ. Sci., 30 May 2018
Sec. Freshwater Science
Volume 6 - 2018 |

Critical Factors for Water Policy to Enable Effective Environmental Flow Implementation

  • 1Ecofish Research Ltd., Cranbrook, BC, Canada
  • 2World Wildlife Fund, Woking, United Kingdom
  • 3Sustainable Waters, Crozet, VA, United States
  • 4Locke and Associates, Kaslo, BC, Canada
  • 5Ecofish Research Ltd., Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • 6Ecofish Research Ltd., Calgary, AB, Canada

During the last two decades many countries have recognized the integral part that environmental flows should play in water management and have incorporated environmental flow provisions as they have updated water policy. This brief sets out generic recommendations for governments and other stakeholders on factors that, if reflected in policy frameworks, are likely to enable scaling up of environmental flow implementation. Our recommendations have been informed by a review of political, economic, social and scientific enabling factors that led to environmental flow implementation in eight rivers across the world. Legislation and regulation are pre-requisites for effective environmental flow implementation. Depending on context, we describe a number of other factors that can provide a foundation for effective environmental flows policy.


UN Sustainable Development Goal target 6.4 recognizes the need to ensure “sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater” ( In hydrological terms, sustainable withdrawals should allow for the maintenance or restoration of environmental flows (e-flows) for the benefit of downstream water users, maintenance of valuable ecosystem services (e.g., fisheries), and safeguarding of biodiversity and cultural values. Indeed, it has been argued that the environmental litmus test of water security is continued flow through rivers and other freshwater ecosystems of sufficient quantities of water, at critical times of year (Tickner and Acreman, 2013). Many countries have incorporated e-flow provisions as they have updated water policy. Implementation of policies has been challenging primarily because of lack of political will, imperfect understanding of costs and benefits, and limitations in institutional capacity and resources (Le Quesne et al., 2010). Nevertheless, success stories have emerged.

This brief sets out generic recommendations for governments and other stakeholders on factors that, if reflected in policy frameworks, are likely to enable scaling up e-flow implementation to larger spatial scales (basin, jurisdiction), to a greater number of jurisdictions, and to more rivers overall. These recommendations were derived from a review of e-flow implementation in eight rivers across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia (Harwood et al., 2017, see Table 1). The intention is not to produce a prescriptive approach to policy development for e-flow implementation; measures should always be informed by context. Rather, the aim is to stimulate thinking about specific measures that could be encapsulated in, or promoted by, water policies, based on documented experiences.


Table 1. Details of the case study watersheds.

Policy Options and Implications

Our case study review identified a range of enabling factors; for the purposes of this policy brief we have grouped these into four categories. These factors and examples of their importance in the case studies we reviewed are presented in Table 2.


Table 2. Enabling factors that support successful e-flow implementation.

Legislation and Regulation

We found that the fundamental enabling factor that underpins most, if not all, cases of successful e-flow implementation is the existence of conducive legislation and regulation. The type of legislation and regulation behind the implementation of e-flows varies greatly; however, long-term protection or restoration of flows for the environment is dependent on there being a legislated framework within which to act. In broad terms, laws reflect the values of society, thus jurisdictions that have e-flows written into their laws and regulations have demonstrated at least some consideration of the ecosystem services and values that rivers provide. We identify three principal types of legislation that have facilitated e-flow implementation:

1. Water Management Legislation

If the governing entity responsible for water management (national or state/provincial level) has set a standard or regulation that mandates e-flows, it creates momentum for both protection and restoration of e-flows. For example, in Mexico the National Water Law of 1992 recognized the environment as a legitimate user of water.

2. Endangered Species or Other Environmental Legislation

In the US, the Endangered Species Act has been the single most powerful lever for protecting and restoring e-flows. In Australia, commitments to both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention were used as the basis for the Commonwealth (federal) government to assume leadership for water decision-making in the Murray-Darling Basin.

3. Regulations on Dam Operations

In the US, licensing (and re-licensing) requirements set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have opened the door for e-flow advocates to set dam operating conditions that facilitate e-flows. Regulations in China governing the operations of the Three Gorges Dam have been adjusted to provide e-flows for ecological, social, and economic benefits.

Although fundamental, legislation alone is rarely sufficient. For example, in South Africa the National Water Act enacted in 1998 called for an ecological reserve of water and the formation of catchment management agencies, but it was 2006 before the Inkomati-Usuthu Catchment Management Agency was formed (the country's first) and another 5 years before e-flow implementation. Pahl-Wostl et al. (2012) noted that innovative legal frameworks are necessary to effectively address water related management problems, but are not sufficient without additional policy measures. The precise mechanisms set out in legal frameworks need to be defined according to local context and in light of the nature of e-flow implementation challenges. Horne et al. (2017) described a typology of water allocation mechanisms for environmental purposes, broadly split into two types: mechanisms that impose conditions on water users (e.g., a cap on total water abstraction), and mechanisms that establish a legal right to water for the environment itself (e.g., an environmental water reserve).

Our case studies highlight the role of these mechanisms. For example, a cap on total water abstraction was set for the Murray-Darling Basin overall, followed by Sustainable Diversion Limits for individual sub-basins, which has the effect of protecting all water remaining in the system once limits are reached. Meanwhile, the San Pedro Mezquital River case study is an excellent example of the establishment of an environmental water reserve. The presidential decree in this case includes conditions that provide a clear framework for authorizing future water abstraction.

As a result of the numerous challenges in re-allocating water from existing rights-holders, it is best if e-flows are protected as a reserve or a cap on allocations whenever possible, and if such a cap or reserve is put in place it is done before water becomes over-allocated (Dyson et al., 2008). This will be more politically expedient and cheaper to administer than the re-allocation or reduction of existing rights, or the enforcement of regulations against multiple users. The case studies on the Kennet, Murray-Darling, and Crocodile rivers demonstrate the challenges of attempting to re-allocate or reduce existing water use rights. Nevertheless, the establishment of water trading mechanisms in the Murray-Darling Basin (Murray Darling Basin Authority, 2017) and water banks in the western US (Harwood et al., 2014) indicate that innovative solutions can be found.

Collaboration and Leadership

Human uses of rivers are extremely diverse, as are the ways in which different people, communities and organizations rely on rivers (Horne et al., 2017). E-flow implementation therefore typically faces many politically challenging realities and conflicts between water uses. Given this, Pahl-Wostl et al. (2013) emphasize that the development of e-flows should, from the outset, include input from a wide range of stakeholders on possible trade-offs and synergies between different water uses. A critical early step where stakeholder input is required is agreement on a vision for the river and realistic, achievable, flow-related objectives that most people can support (Dyson et al., 2008). Objectives will be different for different rivers, or even parts of the same river, and will depend on the political, social, economic, and ecological context (O'Keeffe and Le Quesne, 2009).

Our case studies confirmed that collaboration is an essential ingredient for success. Many individuals and organizations have roles to play. Collaboration ensures that stakeholders understand the need for e-flows and how trade-offs between conflicting demands are assessed, and are engaged in the decision-making process. Without this understanding, the implementation process is likely to be undermined by water users unsupportive of e-flows, or not enforced by the agencies responsible for oversight. Structured Decision Making is a valuable process for such collaboration and provides a mechanism for reviewing available information, setting objectives, addressing uncertainty, evaluating trade-offs between competing demands, and making decisions (Gregory et al., 2012).

Given the range of stakeholders involved, the frequent need to resolve conflicts between water users, and the technical and resource challenges often faced (section Resources and Capacity), our case studies highlighted the importance of one or multiple champions to drive the process forward. A champion who holds a senior position within a regulatory authority responsible for water allocation can be a powerful force, often spurring rapid action; however, other organizations such as NGOs can also drive implementation. For Mexico's environmental water reserves (EWR) program, a champion within WWF was successful in persuading the director of CONAGUA, the water allocation authority, of the value of protecting e-flows. The director of CONAGUA, in turn, spurred e-flow assessments in almost double the original target number of watersheds. Together, WWF and CONAGUA were responsible for securing funding for the EWR program, including from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB).

Political champions for e-flows can also help smooth the road to implementation. This was evident in the River Kennet case study, where a ministerial ally to local and national NGOs helped pass a Water Act through parliament necessary for the e-flow restoration project to secure adequate funding. Champions in international funding agencies can also facilitate action through adherence to standards and the provision of funds, two of the other key enabling factors for successful e-flow implementation (Table 2). The role champions and “policy entrepreneurs” (Huitema and Meijerink, 2010) can play has also been highlighted in achieving better water resource management (Lenton and Muller, 2009; Straith et al., 2014).

Resources and Capacity

Scientific understanding has a key role in guiding flow management. However, the particular type of science—or other disciplinary expertise—needed depends upon the outcomes to be protected or attained through e-flow management. Early e-flow science was focused on the conservation of a few targeted species, requiring knowledge and data on the relationship between specific flow conditions and the life cycle requirements of those species. This is still relevant in some situations. In the Three Gorges Dam case study, fish biologists and hydrologists were critical in identifying the spawning locations of Chinese carp in the reaches downstream of the dam, along with the important hydrologic indicators and their ranges for natural spawning that were mimicked when designing e-flows. In other situations, desired e-flow outcomes have expanded to encompass entire aquatic communities, or to include ecological functions such as sediment transport. Consequently, the array of necessary disciplinary expertise has expanded greatly. When social outcomes, such as restoration of fisheries or recreational benefits, are included, the requisite expertise expands again to include economics, human health, and other social sciences.

Effective e-flow implementation requires an understanding of the needs of the species or resource one is trying to protect or restore and how these needs relate to flow magnitude, timing, duration, frequency, and rate of change. However, natural systems, and the communities dependent upon them, are complicated and variable, posing significant analytical challenges. These challenges are compounded when trying to link flows to ecosystem services valued by humans because the causative chain of linkages becomes more complicated (Parker and Oates, 2016). Accordingly, a process for prioritizing trans-disciplinary research, involving natural and social scientific disciplines, should be promoted and supported (Tickner et al., 2017). Nevertheless, e-flow prescriptions should be targeted and only as complex as the context requires. It has proven exceedingly difficult to implement complex e-flow specifications intended to mimic elements of natural flow variability (i.e., by including both intra- and inter-annual variations in flow; Richter et al., 2011).

Lack of resources and/or technical capacity was a barrier to implementation across many of our case studies, as it was in the 20+ case studies examined by Le Quesne et al. (2010). E-flow determination, implementation, and management requires the assembly and analysis of data, individuals trained in a number of different fields, coordination of stakeholders and experts, use of hydrologic models and other decision support tools, and government managers to license and enforce standards. In complex situations with multiple water users, experienced facilitators are also required to balance conflicting needs and facilitate generation of solutions that stakeholders can support. Similar to the implementation of river basin plans (Pegram et al., 2013), these tasks require sustainable funding over many years and the ability to retain expertise. The involvement of various stakeholders often means that capacity-building is a necessary early component of e-flow assessment and determination processes, regardless of jurisdiction. Accordingly, the process may need to start simple to foster understanding and support and demonstrate implementation success within a timeframe that maintains stakeholder support (O'Keeffe, in review).

A common trend across our case studies, both in developed and developing countries, was the learning and understanding gained as the e-flow determination process evolved, and the disappointment that such knowledge often had to be re-taught as a result of turnover. One remedy to the lack of capacity in determining e-flows is to harness the capacity of international organizations experienced in conducting e-flow assessments in a diverse array of scenarios and climates. This approach was taken in the Poonch River case study, as Mira Power hired both a local consultant, Hagler Bailly, and a consulting team from South Africa, Southern Waters, experienced in conducting the Downstream Response to Imposed Flow Transformation (DRIFT; King et al., 2003) e-flow assessment.

Another remedy to an initial lack of capacity is the development of technical standards and guidelines for a region or jurisdiction. This can guide practitioners in appropriate e-flow determination and help overcome inertia when determining which method for e-flow determination is best given the array of techniques available (Tharme, 2003; Acreman et al., 2014). Richter et al. (2011) noted that many good intentions to protect e-flows have stalled due to confusion about which assessment method is “best.” The publication of a national standard on e-flow assessment was a key enabling factor in the San Pedro Mezquital case study that provided certainty over the approved approach.

Monitoring and Adaptive Management

Despite marked advances in e-flow science (Acreman et al., 2014), uncertainty remains in the understanding of flow-ecology relationships (e.g., Bradford and Heinonen, 2008; Poff and Zimmerman, 2010; Bradford et al., 2011). Uncertainty means it is important to implement monitoring and adaptive management to ensure that e-flows have the desired outcome. Monitoring outcomes of e-flow implementation is also important to demonstrate the benefits to water managers, the broader public, and politicians (King et al., 2015). Implementing a monitoring program presents its own challenges given the complexity of aquatic ecosystems, natural variability in response variables (e.g., fish abundance and diversity), the multitude of confounding environmental variables (e.g., temperature, land use change), and sustained financial cost. This makes it essential to identify suitable ecological indicators, objectives, methods, and timeframe for the monitoring program (Locke et al., 2008; King et al., 2015), similar to programs aimed specifically at river restoration (Speed et al., 2016).

Monitoring social and economic outcomes generated by an e-flow regime is also critical (Dyson et al., 2008; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2013). Surveys of people's perception of change can also be useful (Speed et al., 2016), and our case studies illustrate growing public awareness of e-flow values, as demonstrated by public acceptance of protective measures implemented for the management of the Poonch River Mahaseer National Park, and in the public support for management of flows within the Ganga River to enable a successful Kumbh 2013. Parker and Oates (2016) note that to ensure equitable distribution of river-related benefits, decisions regarding trade-offs between conflicting needs must be transparent, inclusive, and based on the best available evidence. Only through proper monitoring will the ecological, social, and economic consequences of e-flow decisions be validated and available to help inform adaptive management and future decisions (Richter et al., 2006; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2013; Pegram et al., 2013; King et al., 2015).

Actionable Recommendations

Our review of case studies demonstrated a number of ways in which policy interventions can facilitate e-flow implementation. The route to success will be dependent on system- and jurisdiction-specific concerns and legal, political, institutional, social, economic, and ecological contexts. This supports the conclusion of Le Quesne et al. (2010) that there is no single correct approach to the implementation of e-flows; instead, the approach must be carefully tailored to the context. It also reinforces insights from broader literature on water resource management about the need to acknowledge complexity (Zeitoun et al., 2016) and the need for trans-disciplinary approaches to policy, planning, and research on water resources and ecosystem management (Tickner et al., 2017). Despite this finding, there are some common truths that emerge from our case study review that lead to the following recommended actions:

1. Enact clear and effective legislation and regulation, and maintain the political will to implement and enforce;

2. Implement some level of protection as early as possible since it is easier to restrict allocation than to reallocate water;

3. Engage meaningfully with stakeholders to garner understanding and support;

4. Secure sufficient resources and capacity for e-flow design (including stakeholder engagement), implementation, and monitoring and adaptive management;

5. Consider how e-flow implementation will affect not just ecological, but also economic and social conditions for different groups of people;

6. Keep e-flow prescriptions as scientific as possible according to the level of risk and intensity of water use, and within the available financial and human resource constraints–but balance this with the need to keep science targeted and only as complex as the context allows, and with the need for clear non-technical communication of the issues with stakeholders; and

7. Monitor ecological, social and economic outcomes of e-flow implementation and manage adaptively.


With the rise of water scarcity across the globe and the pressures on water resources increasing from factors such as population growth, economic transition and climate change, the number of “working rivers” that serve multiple functions is growing. Rivers that provide ecological, social, economic, and cultural value must be healthy; otherwise they will cease to deliver many or all of these benefits. Legislative and policy regimes are being continually updated and e-flows are increasingly playing a central role in water allocation regimes, infrastructure design and operation, and water resource management more broadly. Implementation of e-flows is now a critical part of sustainable water management.

Successful e-flow implementation is invariably underpinned by legislation, but to meet policy objectives for e-flow implementation and achieve the SDG target of ensuring “sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater” it will be necessary to develop policies that incorporate measures for, and stimulate investment in, improving technical capacity, engaging stakeholders, setting standards, encouraging champions, establishing monitoring networks, and developing innovative solutions to reallocate water. Our case study analysis showed the range of roles that different stakeholders can play in implementing e-flows and highlights the collective, collaborative effort required. This policy brief builds on this experience and provides recommendations for governments and other stakeholders that will enable the successful scaling up of e-flow implementation if reflected in appropriate legislation and policy.

Author Contributions

AH and DT conceived and drafted the outline of the manuscript with input from BR and AL. AH, SJ, and XY acquired and interpreted the information gathered for the work, with DT, BR, and AL providing critical input on implications and recommendations. AH and DT drafted sections of the manuscript. All authors contributed to manuscript revision, read, and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest Statement

AH, SJ, and XY are employed by the commercial company, Ecofish Research Ltd.; BR is the President of the commercial company, Sustainable Waters; AL is the President of the commercial company, Locke and Associates. These companies received financial contributions from WWF-UK to support the drafting of this policy brief and the case study review upon which it is based. DT declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

DT is an Editor of the Research Topic “Implementing Environmental Flows: Lessons for Policy and Practice” to which this manuscript is being submitted.

The reviewer AA and handling editor declared their shared affiliation.


The authors are grateful to the dozens of people who contributed to the case study review either as stakeholder interviewees, reviewers, or members of the WWF and external advisory groups.


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Keywords: environmental flows, water policy, implementation, enabling factors, water management, dams, water allocation

Citation: Harwood AJ, Tickner D, Richter BD, Locke A, Johnson S and Yu X (2018) Critical Factors for Water Policy to Enable Effective Environmental Flow Implementation. Front. Environ. Sci. 6:37. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2018.00037

Received: 06 February 2018; Accepted: 11 May 2018;
Published: 30 May 2018.

Edited by:

Anik Bhaduri, Griffith University, Australia

Reviewed by:

Sharad Kumar Jain, National Institute of Hydrology, India
Renato Tavares Martins, Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil
Angela Helen Arthington, Griffith University, Australia

Copyright © 2018 Harwood, Tickner, Richter, Locke, Johnson and Yu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Andrew J. Harwood,