Ecuador’s Weak, Fragmented Watershed Management Regime

Ecuador’s experience with watershed management in the late twentieth century (the eve of global IWM reform efforts) was representative of most less-developed countries.[1] Authority for managing watershed resources was centralized but fragmented through a complex and uncoordinated system of institutions and regulations, each responding to a different sector. Different government agencies were responsible for managing potable water and sanitation services, national irrigation systems, hydroelectric projects, and other water-related issues, from aquaculture to recreation to navigation. Complicating matters, regional development corporations were created in the 1990s to oversee water infrastructure proj ects. And this was just for water, which is but one of a watershed’s many natural resources. A host of other institutions were responsible for additional resources, like forests, soil, biodiversity, and minerals.

This fragmented system produced a duplication of responsibilities, resulting in much confusion, little coordination, and a lack of accountability. The issue of water quality provides a telling example. Ecuador’s Water Resources Council was created in 1994 to centralize planning and administration. But responsibility for water quality remained disbursed among the Ministry of Agriculture (for agricultural waste), various environmental agencies (for industrial discharge), and the Ministry of Energy and Mines (for hydrocarbon pollution). Enforcement of national water quality standards fell to municipal governments, since they provided drinking water.

Duplicating responsibilities across scale as well as sector added to the problem. Different laws assigned responsibility for watershed management to provincial governments, the forest service within the Ministry of Agriculture, and regional development corporations. A lack of coordination and capacity meant that important aspects of watershed management were simply ignored. As a 2004 review notes, “in practice, few [watershed management] activities are implemented at the ministerial or provincial level, and there is little or no coordination with the development corporations or municipalities to address watershed issues” (Echavarria et al. 2004, 10). In other words, while authority legally lay with central government authorities, the weakness of central government institutions and confusing regulatory structure meant most decisions on how watershed resources were used ultimately lay with local stakeholders.

Yet, municipal governments also played only a limited role in managing watershed resources, largely due to unclear lines of authority and limited capacity. Their main responsibility was providing water and sanitation services in urban areas. Municipal governments were therefore among the first to feel the effects of deteriorating watershed ecosystems on water quantity and quality. Yet, managing watersheds’ rural areas, including water catchment areas, was traditionally seen as outside their purview. Most local governments had never developed the capacity to manage watershed ecosystems, and many were not sure they had the authority to do so. Before the mid-1990s, provincial and municipal governments lacked an agency responsible for environmental management. They also lacked a strategy for land use planning and agricultural development policies designed to alleviate watershed degradation. There was little environmental awareness, insufficient planning and political support, and little coordination among institutions, whether public or private (IEDECA 2006b, 13-15).

To summarize, watershed resources were not managed in a centralized or integrated fashion, but simply used by various groups of people living in and around watersheds. Most used these resources much as their ancestors had done for decades or even centuries. Smallholder farmers deforested the land to raise livestock and crops. In dry areas, they relied on decades-old, hand-dug canals to bring water for irrigation. Some families supplemented their income through logging, mining, or fishing. Households and businesses used the watershed to absorb their waste, dumping it directly into rivers and streams. In many places, hydroelectric projects added to these more traditional demands. By 1997 hydro power plants generated 55% of Ecuador’s electricity (Salazar and Rudnick 2008, 1). These and similar practices created a variety of problems, including deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, declines in water quality and flow, and conflict over access to watershed resources (e.g., water, land, trees, minerals, etc.).

The specific problems faced in each watershed varied by the type of ecosystem, demographic patterns, and economic activities (described in subsequent sections). In each case, however, some local stakeholders became concerned and looked for solutions. Chapter 5 describes how local activists connected with outsiders advocating IWM reform as the best solution and allied with them to promote IWM reform locally. This marked the beginning of phase 2 of grassroots global governance. However, the proposed reforms required changing land use practices and creating new systems for governing watersheds in an integrated manner. The next two sections describe the key changes associated with local IWM reform and the degree to which they were implemented in the book’s six case studies (i.e., the degree to which phase 2 of the grassroots global governance process endured).

  • [1] See Vallejo (2008) and Boelens et al. (2015) for the historical evolution of water managementin Ecuador.
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