Can ecosystem services be useful for the analysis of water conflicts?

As the notion of ecosystem services has become more commonplace – both in academic and popular discourses – political ecologists have expressed skepticism about its application to water resource management. Barnaud and Antona (2014) show that the concept of ecosystem services is beset with uncertainties and controversies at several levels (e.g. conceptualization, economic valuation, and implementation); Arsel and Büscher (2012) place ecosystem services as a tool of a neoliberal conservation; and Corbera et al. (2007) assert that it can reinforce unequal power relationships.

Dr Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos and Dr Joan Martínez-Alier have recently published a new article that reviews methodologies, types and political implications of water conflicts from a political ecology perspective: «2015. Political ecology of water conflicts. WIRE’s Water. 2:October, 537-558». According to them, “political ecology studies who has the power (by custom or law) to use the available water from a river or to dig wells that reach the water table excluding others” and rise some interesting questions of the political ecology of water. “Do humans recognize the ‘rights of nature’, and are there court decisions determining the right of a river or a lake to have its morphology and its biological and chemical quality unchanged? Who has the power to make a dam that will flood farmland or forests, for the benefit of an electrical company and to the detriment of the riparian inhabitants upstream and downstream? Which decision procedures (CBAs, environmental impact assessments, participatory MCEs) are valid to decide whether such a dam can be built? Are local referenda allowed against mining projects or privatization of water supply? Who has the power to determine the process for reaching decisions on the alterations to the hydrosocial cycle? (p. 551)”

The identification of ecosystem services provided by aquatic ecosystems is argued to be a useful tool for political ecology. The authors claim that political ecologists can use an ecosystem services-based approach in order to “understand the implications of water management for different types of groups, particularly those that usually lack recognition in standard evaluation procedures”. This approach may be helpful for going beyond monetary valuation, recognising different expressions of values of water use, and giving voice to the less powerful when the water gets distributed.

We present here a brief excerpt of the article and an interview with author Dr Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.

“The Ecosystem Service Approach” in Rodríguez-Labajos and Martínez-Alier (2015)

“The identification of the environmental services provided by aquatic ecosystems is important for political ecology […]. Environmental conflicts about water can be seen as conflict over who takes advantage and who loses access to environmental services (Jorda-Capdevila et al., 2016), either services of provision, regulation, cultural, or support […].

The complete appropriation of biophysical processes of river basins is often the foundation of large projects of economic development, as in the long-standing efforts by the different countries along the Mekong basin to build dams (Sneddon and Fox, 2012). However, tradeoffs between ecosystem services are common, as in the case of irrigation and nature conservation (Molle, 2007; Wu et al., 2012; Walsh, 2013) or hydroelectric power production and support services (Gong et al., 2006; Kunz, 2011). From there, there is an emergence of social conflicts that can be studied looking at the languages of valuation deployed and the power of those involved.

Ecosystem services are fundamental in the survival and livelihoods of the rural poor and their loss may result in increased poverty (Christie et al., 2012). Today, it is common to preach in favor of the payment for environmental services (PES) to deal with these conflicts. A city downstream can pay to communities upstream for taking care of the water, compensating them financially for conservation practices or for not contaminating with agrochemicals. Here the distribution of power and the distribution of income are relevant, beyond market mechanisms and charming Coasian negotiations. For example, the sugar cane producers of the Valley of Cauca in Colombia make a token payment to the indigenous villages upstream (Echavarría, 2002). These payments are gradually changing property rights, so that the powerful cane growers feel already as owners of the water against the indigenous populations. The use of the ecosystem services framework, in particularly in relation with PES, is seen as a step forward in the direction of nature’s commoditization (Kosoy and Corbera, 2010). For this reason, its application for the study of environmental conflicts is fiercely contested by some environmental justice organizations.

Moreover, to offset damage is not always possible. A confluence of rivers (prayag, in the Himalayas) or a waterfall can be a place of worship, sacred to the local population (Colopy, 2012). If it is destroyed to build a dam, monetary compensation cannot really offset the values destroyed.”

Interview with Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos is an ecological economist, working at ICTA-UAB [1] on the socioeconomic dimensions of biodiversity, socio-environmental conflicts and their inclusion in water policy. Her field experience includes local development of protected areas in Mexico and social perception of invasive species in Europe, especially in aquatic ecosystems. She was deputy coordinator of the Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade EJOLT [2] project and scientific advisor of Catalan Water Agency.

  1. Dr Beatriz, can you think of a specific example of water conflicts from your own experience where an ecosystem services based approach led to unexpected problems? How about added tangible benefits?

In any water conflict we find actors whose sets of values are related to the use of water, either directly or indirectly. When considering the use of an ES-based approach in water conflicts we should ask ourselves if this help us to better understand the complexities involved, to unveil unbalances of power, to better understand trade-offs, or maybe to map service in order to underpin the organisation of different demands. So, an ES-based approach can potentially be used in any water conflict as long as we can identify human preferences in relation to the use of water. However, before making the decision to use the approach, and beyond any intellectual interest, we also need to understand whether the actors in the conflict are going to find it useful, or the effort to be made can be better used enabling a discussion or dialogue between actors, or to reverse power unbalances. In any case, before using an ES-based approach, we need to ensure that we are aware of who benefits from this.

Then, if you want specific examples, a section of the paper ‘Political ecology of water conflicts’ focuses precisely on how an ES approach helps to systematise information on who takes advantage and who loses access to specific ES. For instance, large-scale hydro in the Mekong River is increasing hydropower production at the expense of impacts in many actors related to traditional provision services from the river, like inland fisheries. Another example would be the impacts in biological control services due to aquaculture activities in the Yellow Sea, which have been related to some of the world’s largest macroalgal blooms that have been ever registered. This is in general considered to generate negative ecological effects, and it may hinder recreational uses of the coastal areas.

  1. Can the notion of ecosystem services be useful in countries where it is especially controversial, like in Bolivia, where indigenous communities do not trust the companies that promote payments for ecosystem services?

No approach should be employed where it does not fit. Some works have identified certain conditions that help us to whether it is appropriate to use certain valuation approaches, and they can also help for the case of the ES approach. For instance, Kallis et al. (2013) identify four conditions for the use of valuation approaches. Just mentioning some of the ideas they develop, an approach should not be used when it tends to hide or suppress the values actors who lack proper representation, or when there are strong asymmetries between the different values represented. So, we should see if in these controversial cases, as the one it is mentioned in Bolivia, an approach can be contested because it relies on propositions that communities believe are going to play down their own values and interests. There might be world views that will hardly be recognised by an approach that is based on a utilitarian rationale. Then I would not advise to use the ES-approach simply because of practical reasons. The possible results of such an exercise would be misleading.

  1. Many researchers working in environmental science are interested in ecosystem services-based approaches, but political ecologists seem to problematize the approach. Why?

Political Ecology is a broad field of study that, in its diversity, also comprises different perspectives. Focusing on the area of water research, there is a perspective that gives relevance to water-based subjectivities in the construction of environmental knowledge. For this perspective, the interpretations and construction of meanings (e.g., water scarcity or water security) are relatively more important than material processes that are behind. However, there is also a perspective that gives a fundamental importance to the materialities involved, and for this vision, the ES approach is becoming an emerging tool.

Of course, there is always the underlying concern that any analytic tool may oversimplify the relationships society and environment or misrepresent processes, due to inadequate use of the available indicators. Another issue is the creation of new analytical boundaries that underrepresenting the complexity of processes. When one creates an analytic box called ‘pollination’, perhaps the main interest is an ecological process, or a process that eventually contributes to enhance food provision. However, there might be cultural representations of such process that are not apparent if you do not pay the proper attention. There is also a reasonable concern that using the ES approach leads to organising knowledge in a way that opens the door the commoditisation of the environment. If we opt for using this approach, we need to be aware of these issues, to ensure a sensible use of the method.

  1. What kind of questions can researchers ask using an ecosystem service approach in order to contribute to political ecology of water resources?

Basically, those that clarify the distributional effects of certain socio-ecological processes, for instance, how are costs and benefits from decisions influencing ES provision distributed, and why. Then, there are questions related to unveil how such decisions, which eventually shape the state of the ecosystems, are taken in terms of the power relations involved. All in all, we are talking about questions that have to do with the material aspects in the relationship between societies, the use of power, and the ecosystems. Since the mid-2000s, Peter Walker underlined the relevance of the biophysical ecological dimension of political ecology, and re-reading his paper ‘Political ecology: where is the ecology?’ may inspire questions for a proper integration of the ES approach to political ecology research. More recently, Jane Bennett reminds us again to recognise this materiality, and invites to better integrate the role of the non-humans forces in political ecology studies. Then, specifically in the field of water management, Karen Bakker has insisted in the relevance of material aspects in order to understand the relationships between water, humans and the non-humans. The ES can be helpful to follow this direction and it has a strong potential as analytical approach in political ecology research.

  1. You have also been working with activists in the EJOLT Project and watershed administrators in the Catalan Water Agency. Do you see an application of the ecosystem services to water conflicts beyond the academia (e.g., for the decision making, for generating discourses of protest, etc.)?

In my experience, water administrators and water managers are different from water-related activists or activists for water justice in this respect. One could say that the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) offers evidence that water policies can be based on understanding the relationships between conservation, the functions of the ecosystems and the related societal benefits. The implementation of the WFD can be looked through the lens of ES assessment. There is interest, at least in the spheres I know, in employing ES-based approaches to better understand values of some services that improve as a result of river restoration measures of river and which relevance is not properly represented in traditional cost-benefit assessments. I am talking for instance of recreation or angling activities that increase thanks to an improvement of the water quality. These values have to compete with the very strong monetary values of hydroelectric power production, for instance and the administrations are interested in using ES approaches to demonstrate them.

Oppositely, in the area of activism, there is reluctance and even frontal rejection to employ the language and the approach of ESs. Sometimes, in the context where there is conflict in relation to water uses, in some countries of the Global South but not only, an ES assessment is done only as a first step for creating a scheme of payment for ES. Whenever these systems are enacted, usually the claims and values of such communities are misrepresented. This is very clear for activists working in water justice.

[1] Institute for Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona

[2] Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade. Mapping Environmental Justice (

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