The Brisbane Declaration

The Brisbane Declaration and Global Action Agenda on Environmental Flows (2018)

The 20th International Riversymposium and Environmental Flows Conference held in Brisbane in 2017 was an opportune time to revisit the Brisbane Declaration on Environmental Flows (2007). A six-month consultation process with colleagues and delegates before, during and after the 2017 Riversymposium produced a renewed declaration and action agenda. This has been published in Frontiers in Environmental Science (Arthington et al. 2018).  Here are some highlights.

Revised Definition of Environmental Flows

Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of freshwater flows and levels necessary to sustain aquatic ecosystems which, in turn, support human cultures, economies, sustainable livelihoods, and well-being”

This definition meets the call to embrace flowing (lotic), standing (lentic) and groundwater-dependent ecosystems, as well as aquatic ecosystems that may alternate between these states (e.g., ephemeral streams and intermittent rivers).

Action Agenda (2018) – a Pathway Forward for Environmental Flows

The Action Agenda makes 35 actionable recommendations to guide and support implementation  of environmental flows though legislation and regulation, water management programs and research, linked by partnership arrangements involving diverse stakeholders.

An important new element of the The Brisbane Declaration 2018 and Action Agenda is the emphasis given to full and equal participation for people of all cultures, and the respect for their beliefs, values, knowledge, rights, responsibilities and systems of governance in environmental water decisions.

The Brisbane Declaration (2007) is presented below for reference.


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. The conference was attended by more than 800 scientists, economists, engineers, resource managers and policy makers from 57 nations.

(* Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems.)

Key findings include:

Freshwater ecosystems are the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic well-being.

Healthy freshwater ecosystems – rivers, lakes, floodplains, wetlands, and estuaries – provide clean water, food, fiber, energy and many other benefits that support economies and livelihoods around the world. They are essential to human health and well-being.

Freshwater ecosystems are seriously impaired and continue to degrade at alarming rates.

Aquatic species are declining more rapidly than terrestrial and marine species. As freshwater ecosystems degrade, human communities lose important social, cultural, and economic benefits; estuaries lose productivity; invasive plants and animals flourish; and the natural resilience of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and estuaries weaken. The severe cumulative impact is global in scope.

Water flowing to the sea is not wasted.

Fresh water that flows into the ocean nourishes estuaries, which provide abundant food supplies, buffer infrastructure against storms and tidal surges, and dilute and evacuate pollutants.

Flow alteration imperils freshwater and estuarine ecosystems.

These ecosystems have evolved with, and depend upon, naturally variable flows of high-quality fresh water. Greater attention to environmental flow needs must be exercised when attempting to manage floods; supply water to cities, farms, and industries; generate power; and facilitate navigation, recreation, and drainage.

Environmental flow management provides the water flows needed to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems in coexistence with agriculture, industry, and cities.

The goal of environmental flow management is to restore and maintain the socially-valued benefits of healthy, resilient freshwater ecosystems through participatory decision-making informed by sound science. Ground-water and floodplain management are integral to environmental flow management.

Climate change intensifies the urgency.

Sound environmental flow management hedges against potentially serious and irreversible damage to freshwater ecosystems from climate change impacts by maintaining and enhancing ecosystem resiliency.

Progress has been made, but much more attention is needed.

Several governments have instituted innovative water policies that explicitly recognize environmental flow needs. Environmental flow needs are increasingly being considered in water infrastructure development and are being maintained or restored through releases of water from dams, limitations on ground¬water and surface-water diversions, and management of land-use practices. Even so, the progress made to date falls far short of the global effort needed to sustain healthy freshwater ecosystems and the economies, livelihoods, and human well-being that depend upon them.


Global Action Agenda

The delegates to the 10th International Riversymposium and Environmental Flows Conference call upon all governments, development banks, donors, river basin organisations, water and energy associations, multilateral and bilateral institutions,
community-based organizations, research institutions, and the private sector across the globe to commit to the following actions for restoring and maintaining environmental flows:

Estimate environmental flow needs everywhere immediately.

Environmental flow needs are currently unknown for the vast majority of freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. Scientifically credible methodologies quantify the variable – not just minimum – flows needed for each water body by explicitly linking environmental flows to specific ecological functions and social values. Recent advances enable rapid, region-wide, scientifically credible environmental flow assessments.

Integrate environmental flow management into every aspect of land and water management.

Environmental flow assessment and management should be a basic requirement of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM); environmental impact assessment (EIA); strategic environmental assessment (SEA); infrastructure and industrial development and certification; and land-use, water-use, and energy-production strategies.

Establish institutional frameworks.

Consistent integration of environmental flows into land and water management requires laws, regulations, policies and programs that: (1) recognize environmental flows as integral to sustainable water management, (2) establish precautionary limits on allowable depletions and alterations of natural flow, (3) treat ground water and surface water as a single hydrologic resource, and (4) maintain environmental flows across political boundaries.

Integrate water quality management.

Minimizing and treating wastewater reduces the need to maintain un-naturally high streamflow for dilution purposes. Properly-treated wastewater discharges can be an important source of water for meeting environmental flow needs.

Actively engage all stakeholders.

Effective environmental flow management involves all potentially affected parties and relevant stakeholders and considers the full range of human needs and values tied to freshwater ecosystems. Stakeholders suffering losses of ecosystem service benefits should be identified and properly compensated in development schemes.

Implement and enforce environmental flow standards.

Expressly limit the depletion and alteration of natural water flows according to physical and legal availability, and accounting for environmental flow needs. Where these needs are uncertain, apply the precautionary principle and base flow standards on best available knowledge. Where flows are already highly altered, utilize management strategies, including water trading, conservation, floodplain restoration, and dam re-operation, to restore environmental flows to appropriate levels.

Identify and conserve a global network of free-flowing rivers.

Dams and dry reaches of rivers prevent fish migration and sediment transport, physically limiting the benefits of environmental flows. Protecting high-value river systems from development ensures that environmental flows and hydrological connectivity are maintained from river headwaters to mouths. It is far less costly and more effective to protect ecosystems from degradation than to restore them.

Build capacity.

Train experts to scientifically assess environmental flow needs. Empower local communities to participate effectively in water management and policy-making. Improve engineering expertise to incorporate environmental flow management in sustainable water supply, flood management, and hydropower generation.

Learn by doing.

Routinely monitor relationships between flow alteration and ecological response before and during environmental flow management, and refine flow provisions accordingly. Present results to all stakeholders and to the global community of environmental flow practitioners.