Lessons learned | WWF

Lessons learned

11 lessons learned on managing big rivers

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top

Drawing on the case study examples, this section highlights lessons learned that are relevant for Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) initiatives at a wider level.

In each instance a 'headline' lesson learned is followed by bullet points containing further information. In square brackets at the end of each bullet point is a listing of the case studies that contributed most strongly to the lesson concerned. Readers should turn to those case studies for greater detail and specific examples.

The order in which the lessons are listed is only significant in that an attempt has been made to present them in a logical sequence. They are not given in order of priority, since judgements about prioritisation need to be made on a case-by-case basis by local people and their institutions as they evolve, and there is no miracle 'one size fits all' recipe applicable to every river basin. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this summary will serve as a useful checklist and planning tool for those embarking on new IRBM initiatives, and as a framework for assessing the progress of existing projects.

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top

Lesson 1 Long-term investment is needed.
  • River basin-scale objectives cannot be tackled seriously within the scope of a typical three- or five-year project. IRBM requires long-term financial and 'technical' investment [Danube, Loire, Yangtze].

  • It also takes time to build sufficient trust and levels of understanding among stakeholders (see also Lesson 3) before implementation of IRBM activities can begin. Building the capacity of civil society organisations, developing sustainable livelihoods with local peoples, leveraging resources and implementing sustainable economic measures are critical [Gwydir, Kafue Flats, La Cocha, Lake Chad, São João].

  • A long-term management framework, such as a river basin commission or authority, is required to provide the stability needed for IRBM to succeed [Danube, Lake Chad, Prespa].

  • It is important not to generate unreasonably high expectations of quick results among partners and stakeholders who may become anxious and/or disillusioned if progress is slower than expected [São João].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 2 River basin management requires an integrated, holistic and strategic approach, based on a clear vision and agreement on the values – natural, social, and economic – to be conserved and the sustainable livelihoods needed by the people of the basin.
  • The aim of IRBM is to sustain and improve livelihoods and preserve biodiversity by conserving the ecosystems that support both. Ways must be found, through partnerships and engagement, to address the social, economic and political stressors that threaten ecological sustainability. This means integrating strategies that may be familiar to conservationists with strategies that are unfamiliar, such as those for poverty reduction in developing countries. Large-scale conservation of watersheds, ecosystems, or whole ecoregions will eventually require the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders and integration of social, economic and environmental measures [Everglades].

  • It is vital to identify and promote the long-term economic and social benefits of environmental protection and to incorporate this concept into planning and decision-making [Kinabatangan]. Good governance, gender equity, human health, economic and socio-cultural development are important incentives for local communities to engage in conservation, and also contribute to the sustainability of river basin management initiatives [Kafue Flats, La Cocha].

  • While it is important for those involved in the river basin planning process to share a common long-term vision, it must also be recognised that different stakeholders will have different and sometimes conflicting expectations, and that complete consensus may not be achievable. However, there should be sufficient agreement over priorities to ensure that scarce resources are used effectively. This can be achieved through a step-by-step process of identifying the basin values to be conserved, setting environmental targets, and establishing the actions needed to meet those targets. For example, these might relate to water quality [Great Barrier Reef], flow volumes and timing [Everglades, Gwydir, Kafue Flats, Working for Wetlands] or land use [Kinabatangan, Yangtze].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 3 Biodiversity may have to take a back seat.
  • While the ultimate objective of conservation organisations is the safeguarding of biodiversity through sustainable use of natural resources, biodiversity is unlikely to be at the forefront of concerns of many stakeholders in a river basin. In order to engage effectively, conservationists have to seek and promote solutions that provide socio-economic benefits first and foremost, with ecological benefits being an important, but secondary, element. Integrating wetland rehabilitation and habitat protection with poverty reduction, sustainable development and water resource management, and ensuring the necessary buy-in from government, industry, agriculture, and communities, is likely to bring far greater success than pursuit of a 'traditional' conservation agenda. This is an issue common to all regions and not developing countries alone [La Cocha, Prespa, Working for Wetlands, Yangtze].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 4 It is important to work at different levels simultaneously.
  • Stimulating effective basin management means that it is necessary to work simultaneously at multiple levels - for example, field/site level, national level and basin level (the latter including cooperation with the basin authority, where one exists, regional donors, and policy drivers). At the same time, multiple approaches are required, ranging from policy work to public awareness, and from field projects to lobbying of decision-makers [Danube, Great Barrier Reef, Loire, Yangtze].

  • It is important to develop a sound reputation at field/project level to gain respect and attention at a national level. On the other hand, participation in international/basin-wide processes can provide you with the necessary influence to open doors at a more local level [Danube].

  • Well-planned and adequately resourced demonstration or 'model' projects can be decisive in proving that the principles of IRBM can be translated into tangible action at field level. Begin with small, practical projects to create working examples for scaling-up and replication in other river basins [Kinabatangan].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 5 Effective partnership building is an essential ingredient of IRBM and enables far more to be accomplished than by working alone.
  • Successful partnership building requires:
    • knowledge and understanding of the region
    • deployment of experienced staff with interpersonal and diplomatic skills
    • an open, constructive and 'modest' approach when dealing with stakeholders
    • readiness to engage in long-term partnership and project activities, including with 'non-conservation' stakeholders [Kafue Flats]
    • readiness to work with 'non-traditional' partners [e.g. Ganges]
    • readiness to assist, facilitate, catalyse and supervise, rather than to control and implement
    • readiness to involve local expertise and experience
    • readiness to assist with building the local capacity of people and organisations
    • readiness to provide concrete technical and financial support, although a small number of people working catalytically with modest resources may have a significant impact [Lake Chad, Working for Wetlands].

  • Organisations such as WWF can act as an 'honest broker' and/or bridge builder, attempting to identify workable solutions acceptable to stakeholders at different (e.g. local, national and international) levels [Gwydir, Lake Chad]. However, it is also important to recognise that WWF and its partners are themselves stakeholders, with their own views, prejudices and priorities. It will always be a challenge to strike the right balance between acting as both a facilitator and a stakeholder. It is also important to be aware that there is likely to be a language/terminology barrier between bureaucrats and local stakeholders, and that a crucial starting point for a would-be facilitator and catalyst is to help groups to communicate with each other.

  • Circulating key documents, reports and other information widely among project partners and river basin stakeholders generates cooperation [Gwydir].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top

Lesson 6 Be ready to seize unexpected opportunities.


  • While effective IRBM ultimately requires a focused, coherent and strategic approach, organisations advocating basin-wide solutions must also be ready to seize opportunities that arise unexpectedly from the course of events. These might be due to political circumstances (e.g. change of government, introduction of a new policy or law), or the consequence of an event receiving wide media coverage, such as a serious flood or pollution incident [Yangtze, Danube, Prespa].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 7 Sustained efforts are needed to raise public awareness and to gain the support of local communities.
  • If the importance of taking a large ecosystem-scale approach is to register in the minds of the public, it is critical to establish some kind of recognisable identity or 'sense of place' for the region and to develop key messages about the ecosystem that resonate at all relevant levels [Everglades]. Similarly, flagship species can be an effective rallying point for local communities [Ganges, Kinabatangan, Loire, São João].

  • Strategic use of the media is an essential part of getting the IRBM message across to local stakeholders, and may play a decisive role in securing their support [Ganges, Great Barrier Reef, São João].

  • Before planning and implementing activities in a given river basin, it is important to understand and build confidence among the local stakeholders [Ganges, Prepsa].

  • The involvement of senior community figures, religious leaders, and other opinion formers may help to engender public understanding, acceptance and implementation of river basin conservation [Ganges].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 8 River basin conservation must build on a strong informational and science base.
  • IRBM practitioners must invest in building the necessary informational base before planning and implementing field and/or policy interventions. This means forging partnerships with the scientific community and ensuring that arguments in favour of a given field or policy action are always supported by clear and accurate technical evidence. In several of the case studies, it is shown that WWF's credibility with politicians, local stakeholders and the media rests largely on this point [Great Barrier Reef, Ganges, Loire, Prespa].

  • Information gathering should begin as early as possible and include, for example, ensuring that key stakeholder groups are accurately identified; land tenure systems, drivers influencing land management decisions, and existing official structures and processes relevant to IRBM are understood; and biodiversity values are properly assessed [Prespa]. On the other hand, it is essential that compilation of data does not become an end in itself or an obstacle to progress in other areas. This requires realistic judgement of when sufficient knowledge has been acquired for a particular purpose.

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 9 River basin management must be established as a political priority
  • Without support at a political level, it is impossible to convert the concept of IRBM into reality. Groups such as WWF and its partners can have an important role to play in supporting the development and implementation of government policies that are favourable for river basin management and can contribute to enhancing government capacities [Everglades, Yangtze].

  • Public-private partnerships can be highly successful; governments need help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and vice versa. Government can be a powerful partner that can work for conservation and multiply the results of NGO efforts many times over. At the beginning this may seem impossible, but if river basin issues are presented in the right way, they can become central to  government development plans [Everglades, Working for Wetlands].

  • Effective management of transboundary basins requires international political agreement. International treaties (e.g. the Ramsar Convention) and basin-wide organisations (e.g. the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, or the Lake Chad Basin Commission) can provide the necessary institutional frameworks for reaching agreements. The potential use of Ramsar Site designations and the establishment of a river basin organisation should be considered for inclusion in any international IRBM planning process [Danube, Lake Chad, Prespa]. Ramsar listing, combined with application of the Ramsar 'wise use' concept can also make a significant contribution even when the basin is wholly within the territory of one country [Gwydir].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top


Lesson 10 Formal protected area designations may be vital for long-term underpinning of river basin management
  • Political support can be fickle and the economics of IRBM unstable. It may therefore be important that legislative protection (or alternative formal recognition, such as Ramsar Site designation) for freshwater ecosystems is sought to underpin the use of other tools and approaches [Everglades, Gwydir, La Cocha].


Lesson 11 The conservation community can catalyse and demonstrate, but effective and sustained implementation of river-basin scale solutions depends on governments, the corporate sector, civil society, communities and individuals accepting and committing to the principles of IRBM.
  • Conservationists must ensure the long-term viability of IRBM initiatives by building the capacity of civil society organisations, promoting cross-sectoral dialogue and policies, and leveraging resources [Everglades, Danube, Kafue Flats, Working for Wetlands].

Explanation | Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | back to the top

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