How to Make River Basins More Resilient
Published: 09 June 2022
Lessons from the People’s Republic of China and the Asia-Pacific region suggest managing river basins as single ecological units.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of resilient river basins in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly poverty alleviation, water security, ecological conservation, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Applying integrated approaches and managing river basins as single ecological units can help achieve water security and equitable basin-wide use. This means devising the necessary regulatory frameworks and policy incentives to improve basin-wide planning and decision-making processes, as well as utilizing innovative financing mechanisms to leverage public sector finance, encourage private sector participation, and advance green development.
Looking at river basins as single integrated entities can help develop effective and holistic strategies and plans. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of the components ensures that solutions match different contexts, making way for more effective mechanisms.
A symposium hosted by the Asian Development Bank highlighted the experience of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other countries in Asia and the Pacific in designing innovative projects, introducing new policies, and strengthening institutional capacities to achieve the sustainable management of river basins. Knowing these can help low-income countries in Asia and the Pacific to pursue greener development pathways.
This article summarizes the key lessons shared at this event.
Managing River Basins
Establish river basin management as a national strategy
To advance a green, resilient, and inclusive river basin, the PRC government declared the ecological protection and high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin a major national strategy. The Yellow River, also often referred to as “Mother River”, is the second largest river basin of the PRC and supports millions of livelihoods with its nutrient-rich waters. It also plays a significant cultural role. Efforts across ecological water security, flood management security, integrated water resources management, and high-quality development are designed to achieve multi-level and multi-dimensional impacts.
Adopt a “one ecological unit” approach
This approach involves managing the river from source to sea. The Yellow River Ecological Corridor (YREC) program applies a similar approach to the one developed in the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB), the largest river basin in the PRC. The program supports high-quality, green development through institutional and policy reforms, knowledge and innovation, and private sector solutions. The adoption of a green ecological corridor approach coordinates public interventions to strengthen environmental management, ecological protection, and inclusive economic growth via the program.
Strengthen local economies
Rural vitalization is a pivotal approach for ensuring consistent development across river basin communities. The strategy involves identifying priority interventions that can localize the development and make it both consistent and impactful. This includes focusing on sustainable and resilient production systems to strengthen rural economies and improve quality of life in rural areas.
Figure 1: Components of Rural Vitalization
Create a masterplan that integrates activities and strategies
Like the rural vitalization strategy in the PRC, Pakistan’s Ravi River Basin Eco-Revitalization Master Plan applies immediate, mid-term, and long-term plans with projects that build upon each other. This includes water resources management and maintaining ecological health to revitalize the river’s national functions across “nullahs” or townships in the mid-term, and to restore overall river health in the long-term. It is possible to achieve these long-term goals only if the earlier milestones are achieved.
Designing Effective River Basin Policies
Keep it simple and take small steps
Aside from legislations like the PRC’s Yangtze River Protection, whose administrative, ecological, and financial provisions support the sustainable development of the Yangtze basin, there are several approaches to effectively achieve tangible outcomes toward more integrated river basin management.
When working on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), it is important to take intuitive, small steps that evolve into something bigger over time. Keep it simple. Start with available information—from existing spatial and hydro-meteorological data to institutional roles of the different stakeholders, and what the primary goals of the basin are (food security, improving water quality, preserving the environment, etc.). Facilitate information sharing and coordination among stakeholders to define different goals and have communities heard. Have a goal to sharpen people’s focus and to economize resources. Be patient, invest in time and resources, and allocate enough time for learning to take place. Demonstrate IWRM’s value so decision makers will want to continue investing. Only then can a management system evolve to the next level. This spiral diagram (Figure 2) was more common among water specialists in the late 1980s, but it is still relevant today to inform initiatives.
Figure 2: IWRM as an Adaptive Management Process and the Resulting Spiral of Progress
Formalize approaches to strengthen institutions
To scale up IWRM and achieve institutional improvements (like through masterplans), it can also be vital to formalize approaches to create or strengthen respective institutions. For example, river basin organizations (RBOs) and river basin councils (RBCs), such as the Panj RBO and RBC in Tajikistan are instrumental in developing river basin management plans. The council participates in the decision-making process on water resources management and promotes the interests of all water users and stakeholders.
Plan for a climate-resilient river basin
Applying effective river basin management systems requires planning for climate resilience. Efforts must strengthen economic and social resilience to climate change. The use of nature-based solutions for integrated flood risk management and strengthening hazard risk monitoring and early warning systems to ensure resilience must be promoted.
Explore how climate litigation can further support river basin management. For example, the PRC’s Wetland Protection provides a legal basis to apply climate litigation on mangrove wetlands and enhance protective measures.
Ensure the sustainability of water resource management plans
Water resource management plans must be resilient and sustainable. Including river flow management, improved water supply capacities in the dry season and intensified flood risk management resources in the rainy season are keys to resilient basin planning. Efforts and systems will only be effective if the various levels of government (central government, provincial government, and community-based water resource management communities) integrate their river management plans.
Explore integrated solutions while avoiding negative impact
Establishing integrated and resilient river basin management approaches is critical specially for small island developing states, which are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts while hosting very high biodiversity. For example, in Samoa, the Alaoa Multipurpose Dam Project coupled with a small hydropower plant will attenuate Vaisigano River floods and will increase the resiliency of Apia’s water supply and the country’s renewable energy production capacity.
The development of integrated solutions to river basin management involves assessing biodiversity and social impacts across the board from the design phase with the main purpose of avoiding negative impact on biodiversity and local communities. To be fully effective and to reach both targets of infrastructure development and biodiversity protection, it should be further supported by mitigation and compensation efforts, like biodiversity management strategies, innovative long-term financing mechanisms, policy support, and direct actions to restore and protect other areas of the watershed with the support of local communities. The goal is to avoid potential negative impacts, mitigate or offset the impacts that cannot be avoided, and plan on a river basin level beyond single projects.
Promote ownership and local accountability
An innovative policy approach in the PRC is to activate local governments’ responsibility for protection and management of rivers by appointing a principal leader as the river chief. Among the responsibilities of the river chief are water resources protection, river shoreline management, water pollution prevention, water environment governance, water ecology restoration, and law enforcement supervision. This is effective in promoting local ownership and accountability.
However, this approach also has challenges, such as fragmented management across river chiefs on various levels, inconsistent standards, and conflict of interests. To counter these, the river chief strategy must be complemented by a “Source to Sea” approach to create more holistic, collaborative, results-oriented, adaptive, and participatory systems. This integration allows for the building of partnerships that combine efforts between the private sector, state-owned enterprises, and other stakeholders.
Financing Sustainable Development of River Basins
To appropriately support the revitalization plans across river systems, financing channels must be put in place to enhance green investments and promote eco-products’ value realization, such as organically produced tea or livestock. Other green financing recommendations include establishing an ecological product and monitoring mechanism, the formulation of ecological product value accounting guidelines, deepening green financing policy design, and promoting ecological service accounting. These can further support efforts to protect, support, and enlarge accessible capital for economic relief when river basin communities need it, for example following floods or droughts.
Likewise, insurance can be utilized to cope with climate change impacts across river basins. For example, SWISS RE, an insurance company based in Zurich, has a product that is tailored specifically to local governments in the event of natural catastrophes, like typhoons, heavy rainfall, and even earthquakes. Such an investment can be a cost-effective way to reduce catastrophic losses thereby sustaining development even in the face of risks.
Asian Development Bank. 2022. Integrated River Basin Management: Lessons from the People’s Republic of China and the Asia-Pacific Region. Webinar held on 29 March. ADB Knowledge Events.
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