Water democracy takes hold

01 September 2011 | News story

Through many years of experience, IUCN is proving how river basins and other freshwater resources are best governed by the people who depend on them for life and livelihood.

Until the end of the 20th century, decisions about how to manage water resources were increasingly being made using a top-down approach involving hydrologists, ecologists and bureaucrats. Now the tables are turning and complex decisions are being made with the involvement of farmers, fishermen, herders and weavers. By consulting the men and women who have a long-term stake in decisions, improved health of river basins is improving the well-being of local communities.

Thanks to pioneering work by IUCN, from Asia’s Mekong River to Nigeria’s Komadugu Yobe River, from Jordan’s aquifers to El Salvador’s tributaries, policy forums involving all water users—rich and poor, urban and rural—are having a say in how their increasingly-stressed waters are allocated and managed. This bottom-up support of resource democracy is becoming critical for governments to achieve sustainable water resources.

In the Barra de Santiago-El Imposible (BASIM) watersheds in El Salvador, IUCN’s Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) succeeded in combining community-level projects with strengthening the rules and regulations over water use. This has secured tangible benefits for local communities in the short term while developing the institutions needed for sustainable management of water resources in the long term.

In one area, access to clean water supplies was developed using biofilter technology in a network of 22 communities, benefiting 275 families. Rainwater harvesting has been implemented for fish farming and irrigation of vegetable gardens. Men and women have been trained on how to run small businesses and support has been given to entrepreneurial women’s groups to operate canteens for improved nutrition, ecotourism guide services, and recycling of plastics cleared from wetlands and beaches.

Projects to improve local livelihoods have been developed through wider community networks, mainly a network of marine and coastal organizations, and a network for community water supply. These networks have a diverse membership, including groups supporting turtle conservation, greenhouse production, youth training, community forestry, rainfall monitoring, and so on.

Through technical training, a series of community water administrative boards have emerged in the BASIM area. By operating in networks, they have been able to begin to coordinate water management across the watershed.

Cooperation between the project and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has led to a Spanish-funded initiative for strengthening river basin organizations in El Salvador. This resulted in the launch of a Basin Association for Cara Sucia-San Pedro Belén, incorporating the BASIM project area. The project methods have also been adopted into a system for national replication.

The achievements of the WANI project have continued with finance from project partners such as USAID and CARE and with the continued support of the government through the on-going participation of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. This will ensure that the micro-watershed organizations will continue to function and develop.