Social learning to ensure adaptive water allocation in catchments

Submitted by Ase Johannessen | published 21st Feb 2022 | last updated 5th Apr 2023
Bridging gaps by good ideas


Water allocation will be an increasingly critical issue with climate change. For example, increasing droughts may empty water reservoirs quicker, at the same time as there is increased flooding which requires reservoirs to act as buffers. How do we get all these conflicting (and sometimes synergizing ) interests together? How do you make assessments and choices for the allocation of water in a catchment? 

Water allocation and priorities for different water uses requires active assessment and informed decision-making. Different interests also need to be at an equal level playing field to be able to integrate well.

Social Learning is needed to integrate flood, drought and other water related uses (heritage, water supply, water for the environment etc.) in a catchment. This requires use of different tools such as stakeholder identification, assessments and joint fact finding.  Learning between multiple stakeholders and institutions, can ensure knowledge integration and overcoming many formal barriers e.g. of legislation and available funds. The Community of practice on learning, innovation and behaviour change will look at this issue. Please join the discussion here

Key problems identified to discuss:

Problem 1: Trade-off between water resources/drought and flood defence.

A dam or reservoir which is 90% full instead of 100 % in the winter may make a big difference in the summer when there is a drought. For example, using reservoirs for flood storage instead of only water supply - these sectors are different worlds apart, for example with different funding streams. In addition, some actors (e.g. private sector) is not interested in multiple use – they get paid for water supply, not flood protection. [case: Cumbria, Yorkshire].

Problem 2: Trade off preserving cultural heritage vs functionality of water environments.

Some historic industries are preserved as cultural heritage – but remain in the landscape. In some cases, the structures are being removed, e.g. Norwegians blowing up a dam to enable fish migration. Removal or weirs does not mean that there is water for people to use, more instead for the environment. E.g. in Leeds, there was a big debate on removing a historic mill, now museum. A lot of emotion. In the UK you don’t have to have a license if a structure was built before 1965. Cf Swedish new rules that old structures have to reapply for a permit. [case: HaV, Sweden, hydropower]. [Water and culture community]. 

Problem 3: Lack of assessment.

A decision is often taken on a trade off without a proper assessment. Planners and experts are brought in after the decision.  It would have been good if they would have thought about it (the options) first. [case: the Netherlands SEA, Utrecht].

Problem 4: Polarization of priority.

Some water issues easier gain attention such as a flood, while slow degradation of water resources and environmental degradation is more difficult to communicate. Different water issues affect people differently, or do not have the same newsworthiness and some issues are difficult to explain. For example, until there is a hose pipe ban, people are not aware there is an issue of drought. It is difficult to communicate and point out these issues. How do you deliver a reasoned message? How do you get a balanced priority when the opinion is polarized? E.g. Environmental protection vs other things. Environmental regulations are difficult to explain [here there must be lots of examples]. This issue is not helped by the fact that some water issues are hidden by inadequate analysis and awareness. For example, areas vulnerable to drought such as moorlands show up on maps as abundance of water supply. However, with a few weeks of dry spells, the resources are depleted. Difficult to anticipate droughts not analyzing how exposed the storage are and how fast resources may decline.

Problem 5: Different level playing field between different issues and institutions.

Flood risk is community based – and localized actions – the environment is governed in a vast catchment and just one person monitoring it. In addition, integrating the issues requires two agencies to meet - Trying to integrate two agencies is difficult. (Collaborative learning issue).

Key questions:

  • How do you look at flood and water supply in an integrated way? Are there examples where you can see the risks and consequences of not having taken the right balance? (eg emptied the reservoir too much? Or not emptied it?) Erosion in farmland vs flooding downstream?
  • How do you balance the priorities in a basin?
  • How do basins/countries/cities make (Strategic environmental) assessments for needs of water? It would be interesting to see how other countries do these assessments (if they do).


Yorkshire Water says reservoirs down by nearly half - BBC News

Norway blows up hydro dam to restore river health and fish stocks | Rivers | The Guardian


profile 3 - climate adaptation.

Thanks for this write up Ase, it was good to read about and have replies on the Impoundment Licencing regime in Sweden our (England) regulations are changing soon but I am not sure if this will remove the age exemption we still have. From a more simplistic sense initially through the press focus on Water Quality but now Water Resources the allowance or distribution of water for users will become a bigger societal issue because more water will be allocated to The Environment be it general terms, specific flows for fish or other species or other important conservation sites. Interesting to see how other countries look at this especially those in similar climates to the UK.