Water management must include local consultations

(c) Fotolia
(c) Fotolia

Water is a limited resource with many uses, and managing it is the source of many conflicts. In order to help farmers, managers, residents, etc. decide and act together, Irstea has developed participatory methods to support local authorities, using role-play and simulations. The aim is to create collective solutions adapted to the local context. 

The purpose of this approach is to encourage a conversation about water by inviting users to collaboratively define new rules for sharing the resource within a virtual space that mimics the local context, using various water scarcity scenarios. The results are original adaptation strategies, such as trading between irrigation users or water quotas in situations of withdrawal restrictions from the Beauce aquifer.[1] The approach can also lead to public policy, for example when Irstea ran a session on behalf of the Val de Drôme Community of Municipalities (CCVD), which resulted in user representatives (chamber of agriculture, irrigation cooperatives, etc.) signing a collectively drafted sharing charter for farmers. This process supports vital local consultations on water management, as Irstea scientists have pointed out in an opinion piece published on the Le Monde website.

OPINION PIECE The water usage restrictions rolled out for each episode of summer drought, and worrisome climate projections have raised important questions about water resources and their distribution in France. Retaining reservoirs, a method whereby "unused" winter water is stored to support uses such as irrigation and to avoid low-water periods during the summer, is a possible solution.

Local authorities are finding themselves having to balance situations that are difficult to reconcile. However, changing hydrological regimes managed in this way can transform the quality of water and wetlands and eventually affect the biodiversity of rivers as a whole. The “creation” of water resources in this way is an appropriation of common goods (water) that also changes another shared resource (aquatic ecosystems). Local authorities are finding themselves having to balance situations that are difficult to reconcile, from agricultural concerns focusing on irrigation requirements, to environmental challenges focusing on restrictive protection policies. The relevance of this type of approach is legitimately being questioned, both in terms of the quality of the public decision-making process and that of the evaluation criteria in use. How should these decisions be made? Regional projects may be considered a delaying tactic by those who are impatient to see these reservoirs created, and yet they are an excellent opportunity to socially engineer a transparent, collective decision, bringing opportunities and peace to these conflicted spaces.

Creating a desirable future

The law on regional planning and development of 1999 created regional projects for urban and municipal communities. A 2015 order by the Ministry of Ecology made these a requirement for any reservoir project. These projects bring together the populations involved to create a shared vision of the long-term living environment and local economy.

Consultation management techniques are based on fundamental principles. Approval for any construction project must be based on an analysis of its potential and a critical examination of the various development options. Irrigation needs, and especially the creation of reservoirs to meet them, therefore become potential consequences of the choice of land use, including for agriculture. Consultation management techniques make it possible to organize the creation of this desired future. They are based on fundamental principles. The first of these is an initial discussion of common objectives for the region. In terms of process, this involves providing equal opportunities for all stakeholders to express themselves, ensuring the transparency of decision-making regulations and free access to any documentation. Next, a no-holds-barred debate on the economic, social (cost and benefit sharing, fairness) and environmental effects must be held to support the decision-making process.

Encouraging local consultation 

Specializing in environmental and agricultural issues, with long-standing experience in land use planning, Irstea (National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture) is working on local consultations on sharing natural resources. Using specific case studies, it has developed tools and methods using discussion groups, role-playing scenarios and interactive simulations that involve users in creating collective choices. Through this process, we have been able to provide support for local stakeholders from several irrigated regions (Beauce, Drôme) to create adaptation strategies to deal with more restricted water resources.

Nevertheless, local processes are not enough to resolve the issue for larger regions, particularly in large river basins. These local consultation techniques are now well established and regions can move beyond issues relating to immediate shortages and build long-term projects that will also be discussed and adapted to the local context, in full transparency, by residents. Nevertheless, local processes are not enough to resolve the issue for larger regions, particularly in large river basins. These are a particularly complex crossover point, where river basin perimeters and regional borders do not match or “interlock”.

Significant work will need to be carried out to ensure the process is consistent with SAGE (Water management and development plan) and SDAGE (Master water management and development plan) and therefore with the water agencies and basin committees. These participatory processes are a prerequisite for local democracy and the possibility of creating sustainable regional development.

Signatories: Olivier Barreteau, Sami Bouarfa, Patrice Garin, Dominique Rollin – UMR G-EAU, Irstea - Montpellier

For more information

[1] Participatory approach supported by Irstea to analyze adaptations and their agricultural and economic consequences in a scenario of restricted water withdrawals from the Beauce aquifer, 2011. Consult the study