River management: another way of seeing and deciding

Canoés sur la Drôme
Canoés sur la Drôme

Greater engagement of users and residents in managing their river is essential to properly shared and sustainable river management. By uniting stakeholders, including citizens, around management strategies for rivers and the services they provide, the European SPARE project has paved the way (using past experiences) for new methods of organizing water management on a regional scale.

The Strategic Planning for Alpine River Ecosystems (SPARE)1 project has just finished. Its aim was to reinforce awareness of the importance of services provided by rivers - and of their vulnerability - to improve the links between human needs and uses and the need to protect aquatic systems. By working on actual rivers (Drôme in France, Soca in Slovenia, Dora Baltea in Italy, Steyr in Austria, and Inn-Engadine in Switzerland), research bodies and water management stakeholders partnering on the project wanted to show how river management strategies could be improved by increasing citizen involvement. "Involving citizens resolves some of the basic challenges in creating shared and sustainable management processes for rivers, ranging from the acceptability of decisions to making the decisions themselves," states Sabine Girard, specialist in regional water policies at LESSEM and SPARE project coordinator for Irstea.

Irstea, helping to implement a participative approach

Using its 15 years of expertise in participative methods adapted to water management and governance (particularly through the creation of the COOPLAAGE tool set by the G-EAU unit), Irstea coordinated the central strand of the project. Based on proven methods and tools, a single generic method was recommended to leaders of five case studies; with help from Irstea researchers, the method was adapted locally during the project to fit the specific context of each river studied (for example, the choice of participatory tools). "The SPARE project was innovative because it allowed citizens to genuinely contribute to the development of action proposals for their river and to participate in the very definition of the operating method used to manage their contributions. Additionally, we extended the usual consultation process, particularly in France, by not including user representatives but rather the users and citizens themselves,”2 clarifies the researcher.

A tangible impact on current river management methods

The methods used were adjusted so that the participatory process being tested was more or less integrated into the organizational process used to manage the water resource according to each particular case study.

SPARE project

With 60 events and around 350 participants, the tests performed on the Drôme river provided the most remarkable results. Two years before the Drôme Water Development and Management Scheme (SAGE)3 review scheduled for 2018, stakeholders in the local water commission (CLE), the local organization responsible for water policies, formally committed not only to cooperating with citizens of the river basin to ensure they were able to put forward suggestions, but also to integrating these suggestions into the SAGE review process. "This unique organization made it possible for CLE members to gain an awareness of citizen contributions (particularly opinions that were more contextualized and less disciplinary) while allowing citizens to gain more insight into the mechanics and complexity of decisions relating to water management. Although the commitment made by the CLE does not predict what will be retained or not, the report created by local residents, which recommends over 100 specific actions, is currently used by the CLE as part of an ongoing review for a new SAGE agreement," notes Girard. Additional proof of the interest shown in the experiment is that the commission is now looking at the best way of extending citizen participation in managing the Drôme river once the research project is finished (find out more about the Drôme experiment).

Now finished, the SPARE project resulted in the creation of a unique service, a complete online tool box designed for anybody involved in water management. The participatory method used and feedback from various European scenarios are included, as well as directly accessible tools (printouts/downloads). In addition to the strand focusing on governance, the service also offers modules dedicated to the technical management of rivers with, for example, good practice guides or a database on the ecological status of alpine rivers.

New participatory tools available for water stakeholders

Various innovative tools came out of the SPARE project, including:

  • SMAG, a simple and quick self-diagnosis tool that can be used to recreate the history of water governance for a whole river basin to gain a better understanding, share and learn from past governance.
  • MyRiverKit, an easy-to-play role-playing game which aims to raise awareness of river ecosystem services among players.

An online training tool, a MOOC, was also developed: "Strategic Planning: deciding and managing water in our regions together."

To obtain these tools free of charge, please contact: nils.ferrand@irstea.fr


For more information

1- The Strategic planning for Alpine River Ecosystems (SPARE) Project (December 2015 - December 2018) was co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Interreg Alpine Space program.
2- Citizens were recruited voluntarily following outreach campaigns for river basins in the press, on the radio or through organizational and voluntary stakeholders.
3- Local planning method for water policies, established in France by the Water Law of 1992.