Managing water through participative processes: the case of Catalonia

24 September 2008

Carlos, who is 13 years od, has left his house to go fishing. Not far away, there is a reservoir where he spends long hours watching the birds nest while he waits to catch a fish or two.

Carlos, who is 13 years od, has left his house to go fishing. Not far away, there is a reservoir where he spends long hours watching the birds nest while he waits to catch a fish or two. The reservoir was built some time ago to supply the inhabitants of the town, enable irrigation, and produce electricity.

This image sums up the complexity that surrounds the management of a resource as important as water, which is simultaneously a social good that must be available to the entire population as drinking water; and a fundamental natural medium, as water is indispensable for life and hence has value in environmental terms, and also with regards to nature and the landscape. It is a production factor that is often irreplaceable for key sectors of the economy; and moreover, many of the citizens’ recreational and leisure activities take place around sites that have water (fishing, boating and sailing, the beach...)

But water is also a resource that is scarce and inflexible (only allowing a use that is limited, time-wise) and which makes us depend, in a final analysis, on rain and snow. At most, it can be stored in reservoirs or channelled through diversions, but these entail high economic and environmental costs.

All of this means that water policy is an essential public policy and a strategic priority. So when the autonomous government of the Generalitat de Catalunya tackled the drafting of the Planes de Gestión de las Cuencas (basin management plans) set out in the framework directive on water, it decided to promote processes of citizen participation, with the goal of improving the quality of the plans, integrating all the different views and involving the social agents in the territory.

Thus, in September 2006, the general directorate for citizens’ participation of the autonomous government and the Agencia Catalana del Agua (the Catalan water agency, ACA, a public body attached to the environmental department) embarked upon 16 participative processes – one for each basin. All their activities were structured into phases and clear roles were assigned to all the agents involved.

In the end, the ACA technical experts, who are civil servants, are the people responsible for drawing up the basin management plan, and the competent political authorities in the autonomous government are the ones who make the final decisions, but the participative process is a key aspect in evaluating the information held by the adiministration. It generates social debate prior to the decision-making stage and encourages transparency in the decision-making process.

The participative processes begin with the validation of the diagnostic assessment of water conditions (rivers, lakes, reservoirs, ground water, sea water, etc) carried out by ACA, so as to allow the participation to turn into a first-hand information source. People who are in close contact with the water can communicate what mistakes or gaps exist in the diagnostic assessment that was drawn up. As one of the participants noted, ‘I walk by the river every day’.

Subsequently, a social debate about the use of water begins through a deliberative process that seeks a social consensus and clears up disagreements by discussing the arguments. Contributions are debated by all the participants, so as to convert individual preferences into collective proposals and thus make participation a tool for social transformation.

Finally, the administration explains what proposals will be included in the basin management plan to the participants, as well as transparently explaining why proposals that were not accepted were left out. Reasons for exclusion tend to concern the budget (in the case of the speeding up of construction), the legal framework (setting a maximum level for water consumption), and coherence between basins and with the government’s general philosophy.

Overall, 1,776 people and 1,311 bodies have taken part in the process, including local councils, residents’ associations, communities that use irrigation, environmental groups, campsites, electric energy producers, chemical industries, etc. A total of 1,861 proposals were produced, of which 66 per cent were accepted and 3 per cent rejected (the rest have viability studies pending or are beyond ACA’s scope for intervention).

Many visions of water as a common resource were represented, as were several private interests around the issue of water. In the locality of Blanes, one of those that participated in the process, participants stated that they had ‘felt very comfortable and we have all had the opportunity to express ourselves’, a satisfaction that was shared by over 90 per cent of those involved. The participative process has increased the confidence of society in the public administration, and has represented a factor for the revaluation of the public space

Jordi Pacheco i Canals is a Sub-director General for Participation of the Generalitat