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Environmental flows

A major challenge for society is to satisfy the growing demands for food and water, without degrading natural ecosystems and the services they provide. River systems are regarded as the most threatened ecosystems on the planet and there is a need for robust indicators of river ecological health to determine the effectiveness of management actions to protect them. Unfortunately, few datasets of direct measurements of aquatic ecosystem health are available to make global comparisons among basins or countries.

In light of this, the long-term aim of this activity is to identify robust and defensible indicators of river ecosystem health that can be reported at the global scale, in order to determine:

  • How much flow variables can be modified without major degradation to river ecosystems; and
  • How this is likely to vary between biomes and climatic region.

This activity is jointly organised with the ESSP-GWSP and GLOWS.

A series of scientific workshop and participation in international conferences led to the publications of scientific papers aiming at 1) assessing the knowledge, and 2) setting a research agenda on environmental flows. This global action agenda is presented in the Brisbane Declaration (Sept. 2007) that addresses the urgent need to protect rivers globally.

The importance of this topic, and, in particular, the role of biodiversity in environmental flows, was raised and discussed at science-policy events such as the World Water Week, a yearly event in Sweden bringing together scientists, practitioners and policymakers to address critical issues on freshwater:

  • Symposium "Environmental Flows and Human Health", August 2008
  • Seminar "Working with nature: improving integrated water resources management by sustaining and restoring ecosystem services and freshwater biodiversity", August 2007.



Angela Arthington, Griffith University, Australia

Project's publications

  • Arthington AH, McClain ME, Naiman RJ and Nilsson C (eds). 2010. Special issue: Environmental Flows: science and management. Freshwater Biology. 55(1) (online 2009)
  • Arthington AH, Naiman RJ, McClain ME, Nilsson C. 2010. Preserving the biodiversity and ecological services of rivers: new challenges and research opportunities. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 1-16
  • King AJ, Ward KA, O'Connor P, Green D, Tonkin Z, Mahoney J. 2010. Adaptive management of an environmental watering event to enhance native fish spawning and recruitment. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): p 17-31
  • Acreman MC, Ferguson AJD. 2010. Environmental flows and the European Water Framework Directive. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 32-48
  • Malm Renöfält B, Jansson R, Nilsson C. 2010. Effects of hydropower generation and opportunities for environmental flow management in Swedish riverine ecosystems. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 49-67
  • Shafroth PB, Wilcox AC, Lytle DA, Hickey JT, Andersen DC, Beauchamp VB, Hautzinger A, McMullen LE, Warner A. 2010. Ecosystem effects of environmental flows: modelling and experimental floods in a dryland river. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 68-85
  • Olden JD, Naiman RJ. 2010. Incorporating thermal regimes into environmental flows assessments: modifying dam operations to restore freshwater ecosystem integrity. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): p 86-107
  • Webb JA, Stewardson MJ, Koster WM. 2010. Detecting ecological responses to flow variation using Bayesian hierarchical models. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 108-126
  • King J, Brown C. 2010. Integrated basin flow assessments: concepts and method development in Africa and South-east Asia. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 127-146
  • Leroy Poff N, Richter BD, Arthington AE, Bunn SE, Naiman RJ, Kendy E, Acreman M, Apse C, Bledsoe PB, Freeman MC, Henriksen J, Jacobson RB, Kennen JG, Merritt DM, O'keeffe JH, Olden JD, Rogers K, Tharme RE, Warner A. 2010. The ecological limits of hydrologic alteration (ELOHA): a new framework for developing regional environmental flow standards. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 147-170
  • Kennard MJ, Pusey BJ, Olden JD, Mackay SJ, Stein JI, Marsh N. 2010. Classification of natural flow regimes in Australia to support environmental flow management. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 171-193
  • Leroy Poff N, Zimmerman JKH. 2010. Ecological responses to altered flow regimes: a literature review to inform the science and management of environmental flows. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 194-205
  • Merritt DM, Scott MI, Leroy Poff N, Auble GT, Lytle DA. 2010. Theory, methods and tools for determining environmental flows for riparian vegetation: riparian vegetation-flow response guilds. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 206-225
  • Dunbar MJ, Pedersen ML, Cadman D, Extence C, Waddingham J, Chadd R, Larsen SE. 2010. River discharge and local-scale physical habitat influence macroinvertebrate LIFE scores. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 226-242
  • Stewart-Koster B, Bunn SE, Mackay SJ, Leroy Poff N, Naiman RJ, Lake PS. 2010. The use of Bayesian networks to guide investments in flow and catchment restoration for impaired river ecosystems. Freshwater Biology. Volume 55(1): 243-260
  • Arthington AH, Bunn SE, Poff NL and Naiman RJ. 2006. The challenge of providing environmental flow rules to sustain river ecosystems. Ecological Applications

Project's workshops and conferences

International Conference on Implementing Environmental Flow Allocations - Promoting the sustainable use of rivers, wetlands, estuaries and groundwater. Making it happen!

23-26 February 2009 - Port Elisabeth, S-Africa

Sponsors: Water Research Commission and The Department Of Water Affairs And Forestry, South Africa under the auspices of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the International Association Of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS)

freshwaterBIODIVERSITY members attended this conference focused on identifying and critiquing global trends in the implementation of environmental water allocations (policy and legislation), integrating ecosystem protection with socio-economic development, defining and involving stakeholders, decision making for sustainable use, operational management of water allocations, sharing knowledge and skills. They presented results from the special issue in Freshwater Biology led by Arthington AH, McClain ME, Naiman RJ and Nilsson C (2010).


World Water Week symposium: Environmental Flows and Human Health
17-23 August 2008 – Stockholm, Sweden

Sponsors: USAID Global Water for Sustainability Program, Swedish Water House, WWF, TNC, Environmental Flows Network, Global Water Systems Project, UNESCO International Hydrology Program, and IUCN

This seminar explored progress toward coupling aquatic ecosystem and human health and prospects for improving human health by safeguarding and restoring aquatic ecosystems.
Click here for the programme.
Contact: Michael McClain, UNESCO-IHE, The Netherlands

3rd International Symposium on Riverine Landscapes (TISORL): Global change and river-floodplain ecosystems
27 August - 1 September 2007 - Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

TISORL followed a similar format to the SISORL meeting held in Sweden in 2005. The scientific programme was organised around three themes, each constituting a symposium session featuring six or seven topical review presentations. Science themes included global changes associated with: urbanisation; water use and flow regime changes; and climate change. Cross-cutting workshops focused on key science needs relating to the following topics: protection of aquatic biodiversity; connectivity and river-floodplain-coastal subsidies; and flow-ecology relationships. In addition to written outputs from these sessions, the outcomes were presented as either a keynote presentation at the E-Flows Conference and the Riversymposium, or as a special session.

Contact: Stuart Bunn


2nd International Conference on Environmental-Flows
3-6 September 2007 - Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

This E-flows conference has been jointly organised by The Nature Conservancy and the International Riversymposium as a single, large event.
Themes for this E-Flows conference included: the Science of Environmental Flows; the Economics of Environmental Flows; Accounting for Social Considerations in Environmental Flows; Legal and Policy Mechanisms to Support Environmental Flows; Integrating Environmental Flows into River Basin Planning and Management; Measuring the Success of Environmental Flows. A synthesis of major outcomes from this Conference was presented at the International Riversymposium.

Contact: Stuart Bunn

10th International Riversymposium

3-6 September 2007 - Brisbane, Australia

The 10th International Riversymposium was held as an integral part of Riverfestival, an annual celebration promoting the value of water and environmental sustainability through events around the city. Brisbane has hosted the Riversymposium since its inception in 1998. The Thiess Riverprize and the National Riverprizes for best practice in river management were a highlight of the International Riversymposium. In 2007, major themes of the Riversymposium were linked to those of TISORL and the International Conference on Environmental-Flows

This event, which followed the two previous ones, led to The Brisbane Declaration states that “Environmental Flows are Essential for Freshwater Ecosystem Health and Human Well-Being“. This declaration presents summary findings and a global action agenda that address the urgent need to protect rivers globally, as proclaimed at the 10th International Riversymposium and International Environmental Flows Conference, held in Brisbane, Australia, on 3-6 September 2007.

Contact: Stuart Bunn


World Water Week Seminar: Working with nature: improving integrated water resources management by sustaining and restoring ecosystem services and freshwater biodiversity
12-18 August 2007 - Stockholm, Sweden

Sponsors: USAID Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) Program, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), DIVERSITAS, Global Water System Program(GWSP), The World Conservation Union (IUCN), International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Ramsar Convention Secretariat, UNESCO International Hydrological Programme (UNESCO-IHP), Wetlands International (WI) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

Though essential to human well-being and both climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity receives little attention in water resource management programs. Working with nature (freshwater ecosystems and their biodiversity) helps balance mul­tiple objectives for water use.
Today, water managers have a wide range of policy, participa­tory, economic, and technical tools to effectively incorporate and manage ecosystem services into water management programmes. Emerging scientific tools, such as the Ecological Limits of Hy­drological Alteration (ELOHA) framework, offer guidance to determine environmental flow requirements. Processes of social learning and institutional change can overcome misperceptions of trade-offs between ecosystem and direct human water needs. Permanent platforms for stakeholder participation that give voice to biodiversity concerns are increasingly applied in project design and implementation.
Sector-based approaches remain the major obstacle to progress. There needs to be a shift in political, economic and manage­ment thinking towards more holistic ecosystem services based approaches. Recognition of our reliance on ecosystem services will enable us to better address the multiple problems and objectives for water use management. A shift in thinking by policy makers towards this more holistic approach and an increase in protection of ecosystem services by water managers are needed.
The audience was composed largely of water resource managers and policy makers, providing DIVERSITAS scientists the opportunity to communicate program results illustrating the declining trends in freshwater biodiversity, key ecological concepts like environmental flows, and specific actions that managers can take to conserve freshwater ecosystems and their important services.


  • Water managers have at their disposal a wide range of policy, participatory, economic and technical tools to effectively in­corporate ecosystem services into water management,
  • Processes of social learning and institutional change may be applied to overcome the seeming trade-off between “ecosystem” and direct human water needs, and
  • Sector-based approaches remain the major obstacle to progress. For this to change there needs to be a shift in political, economic and management thinking towards more holistic ecosystem services based approaches.

Click here for the symposium report

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