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New ways of thinking about sustainable water planning

SEI’s Marisa Escobar, Alison Dyke and Hector Angarita introduce the SEI Initiative on Water Beyond Boundaries and how it will help to break down barriers to sustainable water management for all.

Natalia Ortiz / Published on 22 March 2020
Water can

Photo: Unsplash

What makes this initiative so important and timely?

Alison Dyke: Ecological crises have led to the recognition of legal rights for some rivers around the world. While pressure on ecosystems and water resources remains, this represents a shift in thinking, to including non-humans as entities in their own right. This is an important moment to consider how this shift in thinking might be applied more widely to participation in decision making and to consider how greater recognition of the needs and rights of non-humans might also benefit underrepresented communities in decision making.

Marisa Escobar: Today, more than ever, water supply and hygiene should be at the heart of social and environmental development strategies. Our societies’ capacity to move forward will depend on achieving sustainable water solutions for all. This new initiative aims to fill some key gaps to achieving water security: multi-scale analysis, early consideration of ecosystems, and inclusive stakeholder engagement.

Héctor Angarita: When it comes to multi-scale analysis, the frames of reference of decision making in water management must recognize increasing regional and global teleconnections. Both the drivers and the impacts of decisions on water management go beyond boundaries like watersheds, countries and even regions, and so must our thinking.

Why the focus on these three pillars – multi-scale analysis, ecosystems thinking and more inclusive stakeholder engagement?

ME: Water planning is happening in many places around the world. Many countries are making sure that priority regions are generating water plans – and that is great progress. However, those planning efforts tend to be very localized in their scope, and not to consider the central role of ecosystems. We will enrich water planning by connecting it to global processes and by adding the voices of those that have long being ignored when designing water solutions – including women, marginalized groups, the poor and non-human actors.

Why have the Mekong and Magdalena basins been selected as case studies?

ME: It has to do a lot with the location of our SEI centres. We have a legacy of work, data and enduring partnerships in both of these basins, and these will be invaluable for testing and applying new methods for inclusive water security.

HA: Also, these basins are important not just nationally but also internationally. For instance, the Magdalena River basin covers almost a quarter of the national territory of Colombia and provides water for almost 36 million people (75% of the Colombian population). It is critical for the supply of water not just for human and animal consumption, but also for production of biomass (food, biofuels, fibre and wood products) and electricity. Three-quarters of Colombia’s agricultural production is found within this basin. Furthermore, the Magdalena basin is globally connected through the trade in agricultural and energy products that make intensive use of water.

Water scarcity represents a greater challenge when it comes to situation like the one we are experiencing right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. How could this initiative contribute to reducing water scarcity and meeting sustainability goals?

AD: Being in emergency mode, as we are at the moment, can lead to decisions that are not equitable because the needs of only those who are most able to have influence are considered. When we are considering water scarcity it’s really important that at the same time we are thinking of equitable distribution. In order to do this we must ensure that all of those who are affected by decision making are included, whether they are human or non human. As the present crisis is leading to societal adaptation to more virtual ways of working, we need to consider in our work how to ensure that some communities and groups are not excluded.

ME: During this crisis, the most vulnerable communities will be hardest hit. Our work will prepare these communities to increase water security by providing a global-to-local perspective on water issues, by protecting healthy ecosystems, and by making sure that underrepresented groups are taken into account when water solutions are being considered.

HA: The COVID-19 epidemic in creating an extreme disruption in the capacity of stakeholders to directly interact in participatory decision-making process. While temporary, in a certain way, we cannot help but think on the parallel of this barrier, where direct communication is not possible, with other cases of stakeholders not being able to be represented and interact in forums to engage in decision making.
This temporary disturbance on the traditional participatory forums, will drive innovations on how to use technology to break communication barriers. Hopefully, we will learn to scale-up our capacity to reach and engage the large and diverse audiences and interests that define water management problems in context where direct – present – communication is difficult.

WBB will prepare vulnerable communities to increase water security. Photo: stellalevi / Getty.

Could what you learn in this initiative be applied to other countries and regions?


ME: Yes, of course. Once we have applied and tested new approaches in these two basins, we will introduce them in our work with partners elsewhere. Some likely places for follow-on work will be California and Bolivia. We also envisage sharing methods and tools through engagement with global actors, so the learning and knowledge can be available to all.

HA: Also, innovations from Water Beyond Boundaries will be incorporated into SEI’s flagship WEAP (Water Evaluation and Planning) tool, allowing its large, global user base of practitioners to access and deploy them.

Learn more about the initiative

Visit the new SEI Initiative on Water Beyond Boundaries.


Héctor Angarita
Héctor Angarita

SEI Affiliated Researcher

SEI Latin America

Alison Dyke

Research Fellow

SEI York

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