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 (www.ejolt.org)

Ecosystem services in the water research agenda

Interviews with ecosystem services researchers at the XVth World Water Congress (Edinburgh, May 2015)

The World Water Congress XV took place on May 2015 in Edinburgh. Many scientists presented their research about water management and ecosystem services.

The book ‘Water Ecosystem Services: A Global Perspective’ (Martin-Ortega et al., 2015) (download PDF here) – part of the International Hydrology Series of the Cambridge University Press – was presented at the conference, which drew some of the book’s authors.

CambridgeUniPress

As stated in the introduction, “This book aims to develop a better understanding of water as a service delivered by ecosystems, by furthering our understanding of the potential of ecosystem services-based approaches. This understanding is necessary not only to identify and quantify the critical linkages that regulate the interrelationships of hydrology and biota, but also to elucidate how the control of these linkages contributes to environmental sustainability, human livelihoods, and wellbeing”.

Therefore, the congress provided a good opportunity to talk with some of the co-authors, researchers that come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (including hydrological modelling, to environmental economics, through international law, and ecological sciences), to discuss the state of ecosystem services approaches in relation to water.

Here we present the opinions of Kirsty L Blackstock, Samantha J Capon, Klaus Glenk, Joël Houdet, Julia Martin-Ortega and Stephen J Turner, co-authors of the book, regarding the use of ‘ecosystem services’ in the water research agenda:

KB: Kirsty L Blackstock, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, The James Hutton Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen, AB15 8QH, Ecosse, Royaume-Uni.
SC: Samantha J Capon, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, Australie.
KG: Klaus Glenk, Land Economy, Environment and Society Group, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), King’s Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3JG, Ecosse, Royaume-Uni.
JH: Joël Houdet, Senior Research Fellow, Responsible Natural Resources Economics Programme Leader, African Center for Technical Studies (ACTS), Head of Applied Research, Synergiz, Johannesburg, Afrique du Sud.
JM: Julia Martin-Ortega, Associate rofessor on Ecological Economics, School of Earth and Environment, Faculty of Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, West Yorkshire LS2, Royaume-Uni.
ST: Stephen J Turner, Lincoln Law School, Lincoln University, Brayford Wharf, Lincoln, LN5 7AT, Royaume-Uni.

 

1. How long have you been applying the ecosystem services concept in your work? In what ways do you use it? What were you doing before?

KB: «I’ve been working on a review of applying the ecosystem approach, which is often combined with ecosystem services assessments. I’ve been doing an evaluation of projects in Scotland and the UK, but also doing participatory mapping of ecosystem services in regional pilot project to support the Scottish Land Use Strategy. Before this, I was working on implementing WFD river basin management planning. But when I was doing that, ecosystem services wasn’t on the agenda. And it is really only in the last four years that we started to think in that way»

SC: «I can’t remember ever a time not using it, but I guess the first meetings where the term was discussed seriously with respect to climate change adaptation would have been about in 2010. I use it mostly as an integrative and participatory concept. This is getting different people from different disciplines and sectors to talk to each other with a common language. And that’s what I think it is good for. Before that, I guess we had no framework and we were coming from different disciplines and often talking at loggerheads to each other»

KG: «Thirteen years. I’ve been starting to use an ecosystem services-based approach during my PhD. I am an environmental economist focussing on valuation. An ecosystem services paradigm has always been quite interesting for providing a framework in the context of valuing changes to ecosystems»

JH: «I have an education background in environmental sciences and financial accounting. I had the chance to be paid by a company (waste management and water utility – Veolia Environnement) to undertake my PhD on accounting for biodiversity and ecosystem services form a business perspective. Since 2008, I have thus always been working on ecosystem services in a business context. Early work was focused on awareness raising through business engagement and working groups at a think tank (OREE) based in Paris»

JM: «In my work, since probably the year 2009. Before, I was doing valuation of environmental and natural goods and services but I was not using the term ‘ecosystem services’. Now, I work on them trying to see how they can integrate biophysical information with economic tools and principles to assess the value of ecosystem services. But I also research about them on a conceptual level, trying to understand what an ecosystem services-based approach is and whether it actually represents a paradigmatic shift that adds value to research and policy practice»

ST: «I was aware of the concept of ecosystem services. Lawyers, environmental lawyers are generally aware of that approach. So I was aware that the concept has been used in environmental impact assessments and I was aware of the concept used in terms of the assessment of natural capital, for example. But I hadn’t studied it in-depth myself until I was asked to write the chapter of this recent book [19. The interface between ecosystem services and human rights]»

2. How did this concept contribute to your discipline in particular?

KB: «It made me think in new ways about some of the frustrations I had with river basin planning; and it gave a framework and a language to express these ideas around participation, around systems, and bringing in wider issues about sustainability»

SC: «I think in my discipline in particular some people are very keen on the idea of working with economists and actually entering into the world of business and finances and looking for ways of being taking more seriously instead of being sidelined as having ‘airy fairy’ ecological ideas. That’s not my personal view on it though, but I think there is definitely a shift to a lot of ecological work, with much being very focused on informing an economical decision-making world»

KG: «It provided a framework that could have been used, but also in relation to new options, for example, payments for ecosystem services for incentivising land use change, etc. What [in valuation] has exactly has been good, has been valued; and I think the ecosystem services approach has brought a bit more clarification in that respect. But, at the same time different definitions etc. also led to some confusion and maybe sometimes even supressed alternative perspectives and paradigms»

JH: «The concept of ES has been very useful to help business change their perspectives about ecosystems, from one based exclusively on impact mitigation approaches to a complementary focus on managing dependencies on natural capital. Yet, ES has been a very challenging concept to embed in various business decision-making and applications, particularly in financial and sustainability accounting and reporting. This is because it involves changing industry standards or guidelines, which is a slow, consensus-driven process»

JM: «JI think it allowed me to have better interactions with natural scientists and it also gave me opportunities to make my work better understood by practitioners and policy makers outside the academic world»

ST: «The term provides us with an understanding of two aspects. One is the ecological understanding of how ecosystems work and the specific services that they have for humans. But the other aspect is the economic side of the concept. That informs our understanding of some of the implications of different types of approaches to environmental protection, such as regulation or market mechanisms, including taxes, payments and so forth. It integrates these ideas into the policy dialogues that are going on in relation to mechanisms for protection of the environment»

3. Is there a negative side to the expansion of ecosystem services approaches?

KB: «I think it is often very controversial because people may think that you mean putting Euros or Dollars values on the environment. This is not what it means to me, but I think it can mean that to others. It also can be very dominated by: ‘we will just make a map, and if we have a map, we have the answer’»

SC: «Definitely, and I think, as the session [in the congress] demonstrated, just the differences in the different ways of the concept used represents a kind of watering down and weakening of the core idea. To my mind, many of the positive kind aspects of the concept, i.e. its attempt to be equitable and distributed, have been eclipsed by some very narrow, data-driven and top-down approaches to defining and applying the concept. Instead, I think the real   benefit of the concept is its capacity to bring people together. The changes that are happening are similar to those that have already occurred for concepts like sustainability or resilience»

KG :        «I think there is the risk that if it becomes too popular and too narrowly defined, ecosystem services approaches may crowd out ideas, alternative concepts, alternative views or frameworks that we possibly do not even know of yet. So it may also crowd out researchers who think differently and this may not be best for science. So I think there needs to remain a broad basis for discussion and the discussion needs to remain open»

JH:          «The biggest risks I see are those related to focusing on a single ES at the expense of others, for political or economic reasons. This may be particularly the case for ES which can readily generate income, such as those linked to carbon credit trading. It is important to recognise the wide continuum of values linked to ecosystems and find mechanisms to promote multiple co-viability pathways for biodiversity and human activities»

JM: «Yes. I think it has been great the popularisation of the concept in terms as a communication tool, but I also think that there is a risk of overuse of the term; there is a risk of devoiding it of meaning, and there is a risk of actually going backwards in the process. It was originally about clarifying concepts and clarifying ideas, but could actually create more confusion»

ST: «Well, possibly the negative aspects are two-fold. One is that the approach to environmental protection through ecosystem services is anthropocentric. It is highly human orientated. So it could be criticised for not taking a more holistic approach. On the other side, there is potential for ecosystem services approaches to lead to the commoditisation of the environment, which can potentially lead to land grabbing, commercialization of environmental services, which can lead to exclusion for certain groups and other types of related problems»

4. Ecosystem services assessments have been used for many purposes, e.g., economic valuation, ecosystem conservation, water management and governance, etc. Do you see any new applications for this approach?

 KB: «Yes. It depends on how you understand the meaning of the concept. But I would like to see it reconnect with the Convention for Biological Diversity. This has three objectives, but the one, in my view, that is often forgotten is the distribution of benefits to people who provide or use these ecosystem services. I think the human rights and social justice agenda is a good place that we can take ecosystem service concepts»

SC: «It is very interesting to hear about the business applications, but I think that it will contribute to further watering down of the concept, which I think has to be implemented at a broader scale to be successful. There is a chance that we may have already reached the peak of the use of the concept (at least intellectually) but that something new will emerge that will be more useful soon»

KG: «Of course there may be new applications. Ultimately, I would like to see if there is a great emphasis coming back to education around the concept – that also means basic ideas behind the concept and bringing them back into education from the start, about nature and science. I think it could be quite helpful and useful because it may help children to see the links between their actions and the consequences of their actions to the environment»

JH: «The diversity of applications is mind-blowing. In business, we tend to separate internal decision-making processes – including site management, value chain and supplier analysis, product eco-design, etc – from external applications – including environmental and social impact assessments, financial, sustainability and integrated reporting, etc. Current challenges relate to finding cost-effective and consensual ways to imbed the results of natural capital assessments in existing tools, processes, standards, which make up the DNA of any business»

JM: «Yes, I think for water management and for an institutional way of doing water management, such as in the context of the WFD, or in the context of river basin agencies or environmental conservation agencies. I don’t think it has been used for conservation for many years, so there are many new sectors, which are starting to engage with the concept or they actually reorient their work in terms of this concept, which can help to engage other people as well»

ST: «There is a strong relationship between ecosystem services and those human rights that protect the environment, so I think that this is an aspect that probably will be further developed as time progresses»

References

Martin-Ortega, J., Ferrier, R., Gordon, I., Kahn, S., 2015. Water ecosystem services: A global perspective. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Chapters:

2 What defines ecosystem services-based approaches? (J Martin-Ortega, D Jorda-Capdevila, K Glenk and KL Holstead)
3 Assessing climate change risks and prioritising adaptation options using a water ecosystem services-based approach (SJ Capon and SE Bunn)
7 Implementation of the European Water Framework Directive: what does taking an ecosystem services-based approach add? (KL Blackstock, J Martin-Ortega and CJ Spray)
15 Ecosystem services-based approaches to water management: what opportunities and challenges for business? (J Houdet, A Johnstone and C Germaneau)
19 The interface between human rights and ecosystem services (SJ Turner)
20 Water ecosystem services: moving forward (J Martin-Ortega, RC Ferrier and IJ Gordon)