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.


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»


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


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)