|Conference participant Anthony Turton, left, and UVA Law Professor Jonathan Cannon.|
Symposium on International Watershed Management Reveals Need for Public Participation
Public participation in watershed management may be crucial to balancing a region’s competing demands for water use and the desire to preserve the environment, said officials and scholars at “Improving Public Participation and Governance in International Watershed Management,” an international symposium held April 18–19 at the Law School.
Participants from five continents gathered to discuss how to involve the public in management of large watersheds that cross national boundaries. Because they lie within the jurisdiction of several nations, these watersheds pose difficult management challenges, and people living along these international watercourses may have little or no voice in decisions that affect them, said Law Professor and symposium organizer Jonathan Cannon.
“There are more robust versions of public participation” than merely asking the public to comment on plans, Cannon said in his introduction to the symposium’s first panel. “In these more robust versions there are opportunities for the convergence of public participation and governance in meaningful ways. Our goal is to explore those opportunities in the management of transboundary resources.”
Ecological Disasters Increased Public’s Role
Increasing public involvement in watershed planning and lessening reliance on top down, regulation-based approaches may yield better results and avoid future lawsuits, panelists said during “The Role of Public Participation in Decision-making: Essential or Dispensable in Watershed Management?,” but participants disagreed about the role of federal environmental regulations in sparking the public’s activist response.
Columbia Law Professor Bradley Karkkainen argued that watershed management and ecosystem preservation is moving toward a postsovereign model that doesn’t fit the traditional model of federal- and state-enforced regulations. He said there are limitations to such a statecentric approach, especially when ecosystems are a “mismatch to territorially defined political boundaries,” such as the Great Lakes.
University of Colorado Law Professor David Getches noted that the U. S. has only recently invited the public into watershed management decisions, after realizing that excluding the public leaves the government vulnerable to lawsuits.
“In the United States today, we find ourselves in an era of rethinking decisions that were made 30 or even 100 years ago,” Getches said—decisions made with one goal in mind, beginning with the Jeffersonian ideal of fertilized fields for agriculture, and later support of expansion into the West. Dams, for example, were once largely a matter of politics, and experts were brought in solely to build the dam itself, not examine its effects on the environment. “Feasibility meant technical feasibility,” he said, and states were in competition over which could pull in the most federal largesse.
International Financial Institutions May Foster Public Involvement
International financial institutions like the World Bank and the African Development Bank (ADB) can play key roles in improving public involvement in watershed planning, according to participants in the panel, “Public Involvement in International Financial Institutions,” but frustration over international involvement in local matters was also apparent in the audience.
Although water projects make up only a percentage of the billions of dollars loaned by the World Bank to developing countries each year, “by far the projects that get the most attention are large-scale hydro projects,” according to World Bank lawyer Charles DiLeva. In the U. S. 75–80 percent of the hydro capacity has been developed, but in Africa that figure is at five percent, DiLeva said, noting the double standard implicit in scrutinizing the water management decisions of Africa. Today funding for large-scale projects comes from multilateral institutions that have environmental concerns, he said, and the construction is carried out through private entities. DiLeva said World Bank activities typically focus on the sensitive issues that private companies don’t finance.
Success Depends on Conditions that Vary Widely Among Watersheds
Three panels addressed actual experiences in managing large watersheds around the world—from the Mekong River in Asia, to the Danube in Europe, the Niger and the Nile in Africa, and the Great Lakes Basin in North America. Panelists generally agreed that effective public participation contributes to efficient and fair decisions. But they also concluded that the conditions necessary for effective participation were more present in some places than in others. These conditions included stable democratic institutions, a high level of public awareness and education about the issues and a level of economic well-being that enables the public to get involved. Discussion focused not only on techniques of encouraging public participation but also the need for the developing world to create conditions under which meaningful participation can occur. In closing remarks, Joseph Dellapenna, a Rapporteur of the Water Resources Committee of the International Law Association, also urged the importance of emerging international norms in securing public involvement in transboundary resources management.
At the conclusion of the symposium, Cannon observed that although the level and quality of public engagement in some of the world’s great watersheds is encouraging, conditions essential for strong public participation do not exist in others. “There is still much to be done to establish a democratic footing for watershed management worldwide.”