Promoting the application of Environmental Flows in the Management of Transboundary River Basins in Southern Africa

Global Water Partnership Southern Africa attended training on the application of Environmental Flows in the management of transboundary river basins in Southern Africa, with a special focus on the Pungwe River Basin. The training which brought together about 20 participants was an IUCN initiative and was held from 30th November to 3rd December in Cape Town, South Africa.  The main parties involved were the government representatives of both Mozambique and Zimbabwe who share the river Basin and therefore needed to come together and agree on the Environmental Flows requirements to ensure equitable socio-economic development and growth.

The workshop specifically set the objectives to:

-          Provide a comprehensive history and context of the topic

-          Outline the important principles, methods and criteria that underlie decisions

-          Present the interconnectivity of  the Environmental Flows with other issues within the sector and other inter-sectoral linkages

-          Report on high level based decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of the issues.

SADC was represented by Mr. Phera Ramoeli, Head of the Water Division. In his welcoming remarks, he mentioned that the Water sector within the SADC region is characterised by a multiple shared water courses comprising of both surface and ground water. According to him, the concept of Environmental Flows, also call Inflow promotes sustainability and equity and is a very important point to address in terms of infrastructure building and industrialisation. The latter has been actioned as the next big step in the region and therefore the training arose at an opportune time. He also emphasized the big role played by the environment in the quest for sustainability. In fact the environment is a legitimate user of water resources and should therefore be treated with all the care and attention it demands.
The trainers, Professors Hillary Masundire, Dominic Mazvimavi & Jackie King, from the University of Botswana and the University of Western Cape respectively gave through their various presentations a broad background the participants on the concept of Environmental Flows and their requirements. These requirements range from ecological to socio-economic. Environmental flows are commonly defined as the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems. Environmental flows are not the same as ‘natural’ flows as they are aimed at representing a balance between benefiting ecology and humans. This raises some tough questions regarding how targets are defined and future challenges in the face of increasing anthropogenic pressures. The rationale for river flow modifications is to divert water in order to satisfy off-stream water requirements as well as storage of water to manage the river flow variability. Scientists say that the flow regime is the master piece of flow management. This takes into account they magnitude the timing the frequency the duration as well as the rate of change of the regime.

Various case studies were presented with a special focus on the Lesotho Highlands development project. From the discussions in plenary, the following few pointers emerged:

-          Communities need to be empowered and understand that they also gain out of the systems so that they appreciate more the efforts that were made. It is also important to get accurate date when trying to compensate the losses of the downstream communities in order to avoid questioning of the whole process. This boils down to the fact that it is important to build internal capacity so that national consultants can be engaged.

-          Perennial rivers have been well documented. In the SADC region the greatest challenge has been that most rivers, if not all, are not perennial and do not flow throughout the year. Therefore there is a need to research some more on a system where waters are connected at one point, then disconnected during a dry season, then reconnected again. It would be a much better approach to incorporate the ground water component.

-          Sustainable development is a difficult concept to grasp as it is not easily assessed or measured. It is a very complex concept which is at the heart of the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) concept. What is increasingly required is to ensure that there is no net loss of resources at any given point over a certain period of time.

-          There is a need to adopt a system-level approach operating as the scale of a river basin, a country, a region or an energy grid. This approach is a bout considering the whole basin system, selecting the least harmful site of development, maximising benefits whilst minimising impacts on humans and the natural resources.

-          The Environmental Flows value determination should be a pre-requisite of any development such as dam building for example. It should be determine at the end of evaluations and discussions with all relevant experts and stakeholders and not be determined beforehand on no or little ground. It is paramount to go through the entire process the right way.

The good practice approach for EFlows assessment includes:

-          Addressing EFlows at earliest stage of planning

-          Starting with system-level approach where possible

-          Ensuring environmental and social assessments have the same status as engineering and economic assessments

-          Applying an appropriate EFlows Method

-          Aligning EFlows assessment and EIA

-          Conducting a comprehensive stakeholder engagement programme

-          Ensuring the EFlows value is negotiated and agreed on through negotiation on various scenarios

-          Finalising dam design and operating rules

-          Recording in an EFlows Management plan linked to EIA report, the Dam design and operation, the baseline dataset, the monitoring programme, the adaptive management and finally reviewing and auditing.

There are limitations to good practice such as political will, limitations of funds, time constraints, old development mind set; still focused at project level, lack of cohesion among impact tools. Also it is still a new discipline and anything is called EFlows therefore there is limited available and adequate expertise. If there is constant need for development and development happens, it would be difficult to reach sustainable development. It would be better to consider that with development there will be changes, both acceptable and unacceptable. It is then important to find out the turning point between acceptable change and unacceptable change and work on those parameters in order to prevent unending cravings for development. This way a limit would be set and it would be easier to work within the set range.

The training included a site visit at the Berg river dam where participants could better understand the importance of the Eflows requirements in real time. At the end of the training, it appeared clear that there was a great need to move away from theory and dwell more on the practical side of the process. The training was a great source of knowledge generation and provided great platform for expertise and capacity development in this new though new field. It was forecast that a series of workshops would happen to deepen the understanding of the two parties involved in the light of legal instruments.