Gatekeepers of Participation: Water Management at the Government & Society Interface

In 2011 the IHP-HELP Centre received funding from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, with additional support from the Scottish Government, to investigate the facilitating role of Non-Governmental Organisations in delivering participative river catchment management.  This project was born out of challenges that result from multiple competing interests and dependencies on finite water resources, raising important questions over problem-resolution and the organisations that mediate discourse. We were particularly interested in the growing complexities that result from a collision between competing understandings of water management.

The Centre led a series of international workshops for the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, to explore the role of Participatory Catchment Organisations as 'trusted intermediaries' between state and civic society. Working with NGO participatory catchment organisations from Canada, New Zealand, Scotland and the English Borders, this led to a series of publications on the role of participatory NGOs in delivering multiple benefits and ecosystem services, as well as a policy brief for government.

The ability and willingness of governments to shape the environment, ensure protection, and maintain control of water is no longer socially, economically, or environmentally sustainable; at the same time, the public retains expectations of complete protection from flooding, from pathogens, and from varying supply, all-the-while limiting expenditures, advocating environmentalism, and resisting behavioural adjustments. It is within this context that modern water management is situated, and into these conflicts that, increasingly, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are asked to mediate and facilitate decision making.

This programme assembled representatives from four NGOs operating in temperate developed world regions, drawing together executives, programme managers, and implementation officers from Scotland (The Tweed and The Dee HELP basins), Canada (Fraser) and New Zealand (Motueka). These organisations are each founded on participation and knowledge exchange. Building on this expertise, the programme produced a better understanding of participatory management, an immediate policy brief for government, and academic publications detailing the challenges and opportunities for participatory water management.

In addition, representatives from Scottish and English government participated, collectively producing a group with extensive expertise, diverse experience, pressing real-world challenges, and decision making power. The group not only explored questions of participatory management, but also reflexively considered the wider roles, responsibilities, and opportunities that link NGOs and environmental governance.