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The Catchment Based Approach: the commons in action?

Kate Swade
Water is a classic ‘common pool resource’: one that benefits a group of people, but which provides diminished benefits to everyone if each individual pursues his or her own self interest. Elinor Ostrom’s work on managing and governing common pool resources is, we think, really relevant here.

The catchment based approach to improving water quality is an integral part of the UK’s response to the Water Framework Directive.

A river catchment is an area with several, interconnected rivers, lakes and other water bodies. Changes in water quality in one water body will affect the others, and what happens on the land surrounding the rivers and lakes will have an effect on their health. For example, if a farmer is using fertilizer that washes into the river, or seeps into ground water, that can upset the balance of the waterbodies.

Catchments are large, complex areas: there are only 100 river catchments in England and Wales. Recognising this complexity, the catchment based approach brings together all the stakeholders with an interest in water quality and the health of water bodies in an area.

Last week, Shared Assets helped the Environment Agency and Groundwork run an action planning session for the Colne river catchment, which covers the Colne Valley, the Chiltern Hills, parts of Hertfordshire and some London Boroughs. The workshop bought together people from private water companies, angling groups, conservation and wildlife charities and local authorities.

The aim of the workshop we ran was to get all the local stakeholders working together on agreeing and committing to actions to help improve the health of the rivers in the catchment. It was great to see the input of the community sector – while there are some things only the water companies can do, there is a lot that can be done more effectively closer to the ground.

As one of the participants said, “it was great to have a meeting together of people all interested in producing a better environment for the future”. Another commented on the “co-operative spirit” of the event.

Each of the 100 river catchments in England and Wales will soon be developing a catchment management plan. Could a commons approach be the way forward in making these plans sustainable?

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