Catchment News

Public involvement in governing our waters

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Gretta McCarron from An Fóram Usice tells us about the barriers to public involvement in decision making processes and governance of our waters, and what can be done to improve inclusion and equity.

Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) and other integrated water resource management frameworks include public engagement as a central pillar for their delivery. This, more inclusive, ‘bottom-up’ approach seeks to foster greater participatory involvement of stakeholders and builds bridges between governments and citizens. There is also specific legal requirement for public engagement in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Public participation in water resources management is also included in the Dublin Principles (1992) , and public participation in decision making is a core pillar of the Aarhus Convention (1998) .

Public engagement in water management seeks to protect and improve the quality and availability of water resources through inclusive and equitable decision-making processes. As such, it is considered critical for the successful management of Ireland’s water resources through the River Basin Management Planning process; the achievement of the objectives of the WFD; and ultimately, securing healthy rivers, lakes, coasts, and groundwaters.

A new and evolved form of inclusive and equitable engagement is essential in the preparing, reviewing, and implementing of Ireland’s third River Basin Management Plan, including in the setting out of Significant Water Management Issues.

Effective public engagement

Effective public engagement is not only about ‘raising awareness’, addressing ‘a knowledge deficit’, or encouraging behaviour change; it also includes a commitment that the public, broadly defined, is involved in decision-making processes and outcomes. This level of participation is not only statutorily required, but can also lead to more just, equitable, and sustainable decision-making. The approach needs to allow time to develop ideas, options, and priorities with communities and stakeholders; it needs to embrace the idea of social transformation with the accompanying potential for dissent and critique of the status quo.

Effective public engagement facilitates multiple viewpoints and interests, and recognises inequity and diverse expertise in the design, delivery, and outcomes of decision-making around water resources. It has three pillars:

  1. It recognises the historic inequities between different sectors of society that shape social, political, and ecological conditions.
  2. It values different forms of knowledge and expertise by rejecting hierarchical and ‘additive’ approaches to public input throughout the decision-making process
  3. It is simultaneously global and local, meaning that public engagement initiatives cannot be one-size-fits-all or limited to decision-making and action at a pre-determined scale, e.g. local/ catchment only

Equity, inequity & the imbalance of power

One of the central tenets of effective public engagement is equity, or more specifically, inequity. Inequity is the idea that there are differences in the power, resources, and authority that individuals and groups have; and that these differences stem from combinations of historic, social, political, and ecological processes.

These differences mean that members of the public and stakeholder groups do not begin from the same starting point, and do not have the same ability to participate, nor the same power to impact on decision-making processes and effect change.

Figure 1: Equality versus equity.

Consideration of equity should shape how public engagement is designed and delivered by addressing these inequities (Figure 1). Offering ‘a place at the table’ or an open space for views to be shared misses the critique of equity – not everyone is equally able to participate or be heard. By approaching communities and societies as stakeholders who do not start from the same vantage point, and by acknowledging and openly addressing historical relationships and key power dynamics, issues of inequity can be addressed.

Imbalance of expertise

Participatory approaches which incorporate community input frequently position local or lay knowledge as a useful complement, or ‘add-on’, to scientific knowledge. Often it is restricted to moments within the management process where scientific experts deem local input helpful and/or beneficial in securing compliance with regulation. Research shows that where local expertise and knowledge has not been integrated in governance and management meaningfully and consistently, low levels of trust and collaboration have been found.

In contrast, meaningful engagement and communication have been associated with higher levels of trust, adoption of implementation strategies, and meeting environmental targets. Ideally therefore, water management should not be ‘led’ by experts, but instead, incorporate scientific experts as one kind of expertise among many, allowing effective public engagement to seek the co-production of knowledge through multiple forms of expertise.


Water is at once global and local, influenced by international and national environmental and economic policies and trade, global climate change, and local social relations and practices. In this context, the question of scale (what counts as local) is all-important because it defines what is relevant and irrelevant, and what measures are available or unavailable for addressing the problem at hand. It is important to note that focusing on the local does not resolve long-standing challenges regarding how to govern water resources across various boundaries (catchment, river basin, towns, counties, etc.). Nor does it resolve the issue of the different (often more removed) scales and levels at which much oversight, decision-making, and accountability is located.

Recommendations for effective engagement

An Fóram Uisce provides the following recommendations regarding the design and facilitation of effective public engagement in water management in Ireland:

1. Introduce and support public participation processes which incorporate the three key principles of effective public engagement

  • address inequity and power imbalances between different individuals and stakeholder groups
  • incorporate various forms of knowledge/expertise to recognise the value of lay knowledge as well as scientific expertise
  • address issues of scale e.g. how pressures and processes that operate at national levels circumscribe local decision-making regarding water management

2. Conduct an evaluation of current engagement initiatives based on the above principles. This should also include an assessment of wider water governance for compliance with good governance principles:

  • accountability, transparency, equity, inclusiveness, responsiveness, effectiveness, and efficiency. This is because such governance is necessary to support public engagement.

3. Include communities and individuals in procedures and decision-making around water resources from the beginning. This recognises the value of their knowledge early in the catchment management process.

  • It also elicits concerns, connections, and expertise early on and, vitally, it builds trust.

As noted by Simon Rafferty in his article in this newsletter ‘public engagement has the potential to build capacity and empower communities by improving awareness, confidence and knowledge and skills for local and national policy making’.

Public participation is the first step in the Integrated Catchment Management process and An Fóram recommends that the above considerations are included as an integral part of planning for and development of the third River Basin Management Plan so that the final plan will be co-created with communities across Ireland.

Gretta McCarron, Communications and Education Lead, The Water Forum / An Fóram Uisce

Learn more:
Twitter: @anforamuisce

Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our water bodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters Programme.


Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.


Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures for each.


Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.