Social assessment (C2.03)


Water management decisions and projects affect human lives in the areas they take place in and beyond. Social assessment (SA) is a tool for the systematic analysis of the social impacts that a proposed development or policy action will have. It is particularly relevant if these policies are diverse and extensive, and/or a proposal is expected to attract extensive opposition, as big water infrastructure projects or changes in water pricing often do. Social impacts include all social and cultural consequences to human populations of any actions that affect the ways in which people live, work, play, relate to one another, organise to meet their needs, and generally cope as members of society.

SA has long been used by social scientists for analysing the conditions, causes, and consequences of social phenomena and social life. A social assessment is useful to examine the impacts of structural reforms such as introduction of new business models like privatisation of state owned enterprises, agricultural reform, reform of basic services, utility reform, civil service reform, and fiscal policy. It is also used for large and complex projects (e.g. dams and impoundments, wetlands management). An SA study will consider population impacts, community/institutional arrangements, communities in transition, individual and family level impacts, and community infrastructure needs.

SA is particularly useful for assessing:

  • How the costs and benefits of reforms are distributed among different groups of society and over time;
  • How specific groups such as the poor are able to cope with the consequences of reforms, both physical and institutional, and access market opportunities;
  • How assets (physical, financial), capabilities (human, organisational), economic and social relations (e.g. gender, exclusion) of stakeholders, and institutions affect policy outcomes;
  • Gender and youth issues, assessing women's and young person’s views, interests and what they require in order to develop agency on decisions that affect their lives as much as men's;
  • The psychological and health effects experienced by individuals and the social and cultural effects experienced by communities;
  • The institutional and financial effects experienced by societies.

To make the assessments, SA uses a range of methods:

  • Qualitative data collection (focus groups, semi-structured key informant interviews, ethnographic field research, stakeholder workshops, resource use mapping, seasonal calendars);
  • Surveys that capture direct impacts and behavioural responses to reform, or specific dimensions (e.g. time-use patterns) that affect reform outcomes;
  • National and household survey data or statistics.

While it may sometimes be necessary to rely on qualitative descriptions, quantitative information should also be provided where feasible. Change and predicted effects can be assessed in terms of levels of risk, altered amenity value, community identity and cohesion, etc.

Lessons learned

  • SA should inform and improve the quality of decision-making, especially of large and complex investment programmes.
  • SA also has much value for managing social impacts and managing the discourse of project/policy development, as it has for anticipating and documenting impacts. Although often seen as part of Environmental Impact Assessment (C2.05), it may be better carried out separately from the main environmental studies, since specialist skills in social sciences may be needed, and the timescales and study areas of the physical and social analyses may be very different.
  • SA should focus on the ways in which people are affected rather than on technical and economic considerations.