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Managing for Climate Change and Drought in Global Watersheds

IJC admin | 2016/08/29

By Paul W. Allen and Dr. Mark F. Colossimo, IJC


Many countries are struggling to balance human and environmental needs with growing water shortages. Climate change is compounding this challenge and driving changes in water management legislation and policy.

That was a key theme of the international symposium, “Coping with Water Scarcity in River Basins Worldwide: Lessons Learned from Shared Experiences,” at the University of Colorado-Boulder in June.

To help address the climate change challenge, some countries are implementing activities aimed at encouraging greater involvement in watershed management practices from local citizens, watershed organizations and communities.

For example, British Columbia recently revised its Water Sustainability Act to delegate more authority to local communities and local watershed boards. Similarly, the Australian government sets basin policy and overarching plans but allows local citizens to develop details of the plan and implementation. Spain also includes user and public participation in basin management processes. Symposium participants learned how the IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative uses grass-roots community engagement to prevent and resolve disputes in water basins shared between Canada and the United States. 

The preservation of environmental flows required to sustain aquatic ecosystems remains a key consideration in water management policy. In Spain and British Columbia, legislation and regulations about environmental flows guide which water uses are permitted. In the Western United States, most instream flows are defined and quantified by individual states as part of their public trust statute or water right programs.

An example of farm field irrigation. Credit: Delaware Cooperative Extension
An example of farm field irrigation. Credit:
Delaware Cooperative Extension

Some countries that have repeatedly experienced severe drought use water markets and water banks as part of efforts to address water shortages. These approaches can be useful in re-allocating scarce water resources among many users. Spain is one of a few countries in the European Union to have done so, driven by repeated severe droughts since 1990. Spain’s use of water markets is governed by its National Water Act, and its rules restricting water trade to existing licensees, and prohibiting inter-basin transfers have facilitated public acceptance of selling water as a commodity. Brazil established watershed committees composed of 34 percent government representatives, 40 percent private sector representatives and 26 percent private citizens to manage and price water from the drought-affected Sao Francisco River basin.

Severe drought drove a similar approach for the Murray Darling basin in Australia where the Water Act 2007 and Murray Darling Basin Plan of 2012 set sustainable diversion limits for surface and groundwater, established water trading rules and set an environmental water strategy. Within the US portion of the Columbia River, the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program has enabled some water market trading to occur at a limited scale. In the Rio Grande River basin and Colorado River basin, water markets have provided an adaptive capacity mechanism for communities to become more efficient in their water use, allowing economic and agricultural growth.

The impacts of climate change on water management give rise to many complex challenges. When drought crises arise, and where water demand exceeds supply, policymakers and legislators may need to look beyond their own borders to consider novel approaches used elsewhere. And if they do, their time would be well spent exploring the valuable information shared at the symposium.

Paul W. Allen is manager of policy, programs and communications at the IJC’s Canadian Section Office in Ottawa, Ontario.

Dr. Mark F. Colosimo is an engineering adviser with the US Section of the IJC in Washington, D.C.


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