Catchment News

Developing the concept of catchment services for progress towards integrated water management in Ireland

| in Science

In a previous article, Donal Daly introduced the concept of catchment services (the benefits received by ecosystems and humans from resources and processes which are supplied by catchments: Wagener et al., 2008). As part of their 2015 Water Research Call, the EPA funded the ‘Extra TIMe’ Project which aims to identify the mechanisms for the feasible delivery of the catchment services concept in Ireland. Extra TIMe builds on the outputs of the Towards Integrated Water Management (TIMe) Project undertaken in 2015 by the Centre for Freshwater and Environmental Studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology.

The Extra TIMe Project runs from March 2016 to March 2017 and consists of five key components:

  • Identifying national and international programmes which implement the catchment services concept;
  • Identifying key components of the catchment services concept in Ireland (including benefits and disbenefits of the concept) and how these may change in the future under different climatic, legislative and social/demographic scenarios;
  • Identifying the implications of implementing the catchment services concept on governance frameworks and regulations;
  • Identifying the implications for community engagement and catchment management in Ireland (thereby linking in with the second cycle of River Basin Management Planning);
  • Identifying the feasibility of implementing the catchment services approach in Ireland.

Understanding Catchment Services and their sensitivity to change

The catchment services concept encompasses both biotic and abiotic services whilst incorporating the contribution and importance of communities and cultural services into the benefits that catchments provide. Understanding how these benefits change in a non-stationary world is important for the delivery of Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) and incorporating catchment-level thinking in Ireland. With catchment-based initiatives in the UK estimated to cost over £100 billion over the next 15 years (Indepen, 2014), the necessity to ensure understanding and recognition of the importance of catchment-based thinking and catchment services in Ireland is paramount to ensure cost-effectiveness of actions and engagement with, and ownership of, catchment-based actions by local communities.

Catchment services and the concept’s key components (ecosystem, geosystem and human/ social system services) are likely to be affected by drivers of future change such as climatic, legislative or social (demographic) change. Understanding how the fundamental services provided by catchments may be affected by change is essential for both undertaking ICM-focussed initiatives, and communicating the catchment services concept. Importantly, consideration of both the services (benefits) and the disservices (negative impacts) which catchments provide to ecosystems and humans is required to understand how catchment services may develop and change with time. Examples of catchment services and disservices are shown in Table 1.

An operational framework for climate adaptation services presented by Lavorel et al. (2014) has been adapted by the Extra TIMe Project in order to assess the influence of multi-factorial scenarios (climatic, legislative and social) on the fundamental services provided by catchments

(Figure 1). While the Extra TIMe Project is currently applying this framework at the theoretical level, the intention is for this framework to be applicable at both the individual catchment and subcatchment scale. The framework identifies four steps necessary to assess how catchment services may be impacted by change and how adaptation can be identified and quantified:

  • Step 1 requires an understanding of current conditions within a catchment (including natural and social variance, e.g. ecological condition of water bodies, and population trends respectively) and the current management actions being undertaken within the catchment.
  • Step 2 requires assessing the multifactorial scenarios (e.g. climate change, legislative and policy change, and social demographic change) likely to be acting as drivers of environmental and social change in the catchment into the future.
  • Step 3 involves identifying the mechanisms to which nature and society may adapt to these changes in catchment services.
  • The implementation of the mechanisms identified in Step 3 form the crux of the adaptive ICM process (Step 4) that is required to manage catchments in Ireland into the future to ensure the impacts of changes to fundamental catchment services on natural and social systems are minimised.

Catchment services can also be influenced by environmental stressors and pressures acting within a catchment. These environmental stressors and pressures can themselves be impacted by drivers of change such as climate change. By implementing the operational framework shown in Figure 1, it has been possible to qualitatively assess the sensitivity of key catchment services to environmental drivers and future climate change scenarios (Figure 2). Subsequently, it is possible to identify those catchment services that may be most greatly impacted by climatic change and environmental drivers into the future. This can assist the development of ICM actions aiming to mitigate against such change or aiming to increase environmental and social resilience to change. For example, Figure 2b shows that of the services evaluated, cultural ecosystem services2 are typically less sensitive to climatic change and environmental drivers than provisioning services3. For geosystem services: water purification, nutrient attenuation, soil productivity, erosion and sedimentation and surface water-groundwater connectivity have provisionally been identified as those services most sensitive to climatic change and environmental stressors (Figure 2c).

Legislative and policy change (such as the implementation of Food Wise 2025 in Ireland) and social demographic change (for example, population increases and urban land use), will also affect catchment services in a variety of ways. In the coming months, the Extra TIMe Project will proceed in identifying such affects and their implications for governance and communication frameworks in Ireland.

Communicating the concept of catchment services

Given the complex nature of catchment services, in order to be able to instil catchment-level thinking across multiple social levels (governing agencies through to local communities), the methods used to communicate the catchment services concept will be critical in developing buy-in and engagement for future management and interactions.

Indepen (2014) identify four pre-conditions

for the wider deployment of catchment based approaches in the UK which are applicable to delivering the catchment services concept in Ireland. Stakeholders and society need to:

  • Recognise the importance to the economy and society of protecting and improving the environment and the crucial services it provides;
  • Ensure that policy and decision making at all levels acknowledge the value of the environment and the services it provides;
  • Seek to manage the environment in a way that is integrated across policy and economic sectors;
  • Seek out the most efficient options and tradeoffs so that decisions are affordable to tax-and bill-payers.

Comprehension of what a catchment is, what Integrated Catchment Management entails, and a level of understanding that a catchment has the potential to act as a service provider for economic, social and environmental benefits is required to achieve acceptance of the catchment services concept. Subsequently, a community engagement framework is necessary to begin the process of instilling catchment and catchment services level thinking.

The developmental process for this engagement framework by the Extra TIMe Project will explore the following questions:

  • Is it necessary for communities (government agencies and local communities) to fully understand the catchment services concept in order to achieve significant management objectives for Integrated Catchment Managment in Ireland?
  • Is the promotion of Integrated Catchment Managment as the national water resources management process enough to raise awareness of the catchment services concept and to achieve key management goals and objectives?
  • What are the advantages of instilling catchment-scale, and catchment services thinking across governing agencies and local communities, and are there disbenefits associated with promoting this concept?
  • Should any engagement framework focus primarily on wider-level engagement issues in local water resources management, underpinned by the promotion of catchment services and catchment-scale thinking?
  • What are the consequences for failing to instil catchment services and catchment scale thinking amongst communities (governing agencies and local communities)?


Outputs from the Extra TIMe Project will assist in understanding the susceptibility of catchment services to future change and the subsequent implications on governance and community engagement frameworks. Understanding and recognising the importance of catchment-based thinking and catchment services is paramount to ensure cost-effectiveness of ICM actions and engagement with, and ownership of, catchment-based actions by local communities.

In order to improve both societal and environmental resilience to drivers of change, greater community-level engagement in local water management issues is required to embed catchment-scale thinking. This would create greater focus on the services provided by catchments and how these may change in the future in response to the drivers of environmental and social change.

By identifying the mechanisms required for the successful delivery of the catchment services concept in Ireland, the Extra TIMe Project aims to continue progress towards integrated water management in Ireland.

Alec Rolston, Centre for Freshwater and Environmental Studies, Dundalk Institute of Technology.

Email: Twitter: @Water_DundalkIT


Indepen (2014). Discussion paper on the potential for catchment services in England: Wessex Water, Severn Trent Water and South West Water. Indepen Ltd., London.

Lavorel, S., Collof, M.J., McIntyre, S., Doherty, M.D., Murphy, H.T., Metcalfe, D.J., Dunlop, M., Williams, R.J., Wise, R.M. and Williams, K.J. (2014). Ecological mechanisms underpinning climate adaptation services. Global Change Biology DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12689.

MEA (2005). Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystem and human well-being: Wetlands and water synthesis. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C.

Wagener, T., Sivapalan, M. and McGlynn, B. (2008). Catchment classification and services – Towards a new paradigm for catchment hydrology driven by societal needs. Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences DOI: 10.1002/0470848944.hsa320.

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