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Chapter 1 - River basin planning and the environment

I. Introduction
II. River basin planning
III. The planning process
IV. Environment

I. Introduction

The following planning methodology attempts to deal with the problems of development and environmental changes originating with the development of river basins. Its central thesis is that environmental concerns and political, social, economic, and technological concerns work toward the same end when development is defined as an improvement in the well-being of human populations. The development process takes place within a given environment and is an effort to manipulate that environment for the betterment of the human population. Since a primary concern of the environmental movement is improvement of the long-term quality of life for human beings, a context is created in which the environmentalist and the developer, as politician, economist, social activist, planner, or technician, can work together.

The problem, therefore, is one of how and where environmental concerns can best be included in the development process. There are two primary considerations in doing this. First, to realistically include environmental interests in planning requires their evaluation from the beginning of the planning activity. Second, while recognizing that strict economic terms are not adequate to calculate full environmental costs and benefits, they must be used as much as possible if the evaluation is to be taken seriously.

This is not to say that present methodologies of river basin planning, regional planning, or even economic planning do not address the environmental consequences of development (U.S. Senate, 1962; Ordoñez, 1969; United Nations, 1970; U.S. Water Resources Council, 1973). Indeed, planning methodologies often make reference to the "intangible" costs and benefits of a project. Generally, these are interpreted to mean environmental1. However, for whatever reason - be it the state-of-the-art; disciplinary bias; prevailing local, regional, national, or international concerns; lack of awareness; or the fact that the methodology is not explicit - the consequences are often such that many development projects accomplish less than anticipated because of the negative environmental impacts resulting from these efforts at development.

1 However, many of the early pronouncements concerning the development of river basins were particularly naive in terms of their concern for the environment. Thus, the report of the Panel of Experts (United Nations, 1958) could say, with no further discussion, that: "Theoretically, transfer of water from river basins with abundant supply to other basins deficient in water, and the irrigation of arid regions, could, if practiced on an increasing scale, lead to a stage at which there would no longer be a single river discharging into the sea," and "... when, by development, the potential riches of a river basin have been realized and apportioned among the people, it may be said that the initial wild and often destructive river, had disappeared, but it lives again as a new, domesticated river, bringing only beneficial results," (page 3). These statements were later corrected in the preface to a second edition of the same report (United Nations, 1970) and in other publications of the U.N. (cf. United Nations, 1972; United Nations, 1976).

That there is a need for correction can be seen in the collection of case studies edited by Farvar and Milton2 which describe in detail the problems of development and the environment. What these examples suggest is that the environmental impacts of many development projects have been costly - even to the degree that the overall results of a project have been negative. Either the projected benefits did not accrue or unanticipated costs accumulated after the project became operational, often cancelling the proposed benefits.

2 Farvar and Milton, 1972. See specifically the papers by George, Scudder, Bardach, and Hay.

Negative impacts have taken many forms: exotic diseases or plagues; increased incidence of indigenous diseases; impairment or reduction of industrial production based upon an area's resources; an increase in social problems related to population migration; a weakening or over-extension of social services; loss of diversity and stability; exaggeration of both the degree and incidence of disasters occasioned by natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and hurricanes; resource impoverishment; foreclosure of future developmental alternatives; and the need for a large, unanticipated addition of financial and other resources to keep the project operational. What is common to all of these impacts is that the quality of life of the affected human population has been, in some way, decreased - the very antithesis of what development is about.

These failures at development and a worldwide recognition of the general decline in environmental quality have brought pressure to reconsider the direction and method of development through some form of explicit assessment of the environmental impact related to development efforts3.

3 Several critical reviews of the concepts and techniques have recently been made (Ditton and Goodale, 1973; Warner et al., 1974; and Munn, 1975); a short description of each of the major techniques is presented in Appendix B.

However, a principal problem with many of the assessment methodologies is that they come too late in the process; that is, they are used after a decision has been made to appropriate money for a development project or, what is even worse, after the project has been started. The result is that legal suits or objections of a less formal nature may slow down or completely stop development projects, bringing about costly delays and potentially wasted initial investment. To illustrate: In 1970, the United States Congress authorized $100 million for surveys and construction of the Darien Gap portion of the Pan American Highway. However, on October 17, 1975, several conservation organizations in the United States successfully brought suit within the legal system to hold up nearly one-half of these funds until a satisfactory environmental impact statement could be written. At the time of this writing over one year has passed since the initial suit was filed and the problem remains unsolved. In another case, construction of the "Garrison Diversion," a project to transfer 871,000 acre feet per year of irrigation water between basins in North Dakota, has been held up and the later stages of the project have been placed in jeopardy because the Canadian Government fears adverse environmental impacts on its territory as a result of the project's construction. Early estimates of the costs for the project were set at $433 million but these now may go as high as $1 billion if it is altered to meet Canadian objections (Matthews, 1974).

With these problems in mind, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Program of Regional Development of the Organization of American States, and the Government of Argentina undertook, beginning in 1975, a pilot study to develop a methodology which would systematically incorporate environmental criteria into the process of project identification and formulation in a major river basin investigation.

A pilot study approach was utilized which drew on the experience gained by the Government of Argentina and the OAS between 1970 and 1975 in the Bermejo River Basin.

The first, "Study of the Water Resources of the Upper Bermejo River Basin," (OAS, 1974) investigated the water resources through the stage of prefeasibility in order to orient their development, particularly with respect to hydropower generation, irrigation, water supply, and sediment control, and in accordance with the priorities established in the national plans of Argentina and Bolivia - the two countries which share the basin.

The second river basin analysis, "Study of the Lower Bermejo River Basin and Programming of Its Development," (OAS, 1977) was made in cooperation with the Argentine Government and had objectives related to those of the upper basin study. Major concerns were domestic water supply, streamflow regulation, sediment control, irrigation, river transportation, and location of appropriate areas for agricultural and agroindustrial development.

The Environmental Pilot Study began with a careful analysis of the Bermejo River Basin reports but particularly the upper basin study. There were extensive interviews with government officials, especially those who had been involved with the earlier surveys. From September 1975 to October 1976, a group of Argentinian and international specialists from several different disciplines was organized to undertake the Pilot Study (Appendix A). Their objectives were to see what environmental impacts had been missed in the original analysis and to locate those points in the original studies where improvements in the methodology would have avoided problems. Their final task was to develop recommendations for methodological guidelines and detailed terms of reference for different specialists who participate in river basin planning efforts.

The Pilot Study objectives were to improve the existing methodology and to develop a more systematic treatment of environmental implications of river basin development. It did not presume to develop a revolutionary new approach to project formulation and analysis. The final product was to be an improved methodology which, had it been applied from the outset, would have yielded a study with more accurate and thorough analysis from the environmental viewpoint, but without adding unacceptably high additional costs to prefeasibility level investigations. It is important to underscore the fact that the prefeasibility studies of the Bermejo Basin were begun before the worldwide environmental concern had become a major issue. Consequently, the work presented in this report should not be seen as criticism of the quality of the original investigations. This study does not single Bermejo out as being especially indifferent to environmental concerns. Actually it is more typical than not of work done on river basin development before the early 1970's.

II. River basin planning

Since the Pilot Study proposes to modify river basin planning methodology to include environmental implications, a discussion of planning in general, and river basin planning in particular, is required. The biogeophysical characteristics of a basin tend to form relatively cohesive hydrological and ecological system and, therefore, river basins are often used as units for developmental planning (Dasmann et al., 1973; United Nations, 1970; Cooke, 1969). However, since river basin planning as a concept has been and is steadily evolving, it means many things to many people. Despite its numerous connotations, the water resource has generally been the central consideration. In the early stages, river basin planning, or water resources planning, was usually concerned with a specific problem, such as flood control, irrigation, navigation, or potable and industrial water supply (Forbes and Hodges, 1971). Later, the multipurpose planning approach to water resource development came into vogue and consisted of dividing the total water available from a structure among several different uses. Because the various uses of water are often competitive, conflicts arise which call the multipurpose approach into question. To some degree integrated river basin planning was an answer to this problem in that it sought to coordinate and develop the water uses of a basin in harmony with other development processes both within and outside the basin (United Nations, 1970). The idea of comprehensive river basin planning is an extension of integrated planning and goes beyond the specific water resource to include most other resources, as well as many aspects of socio-economic or regional planning (Forbes and Hodges, 1971). A related term, water and related land resources planning, is often applied to the U.S. Water Resource Council's "Principles and Standards for Planning Water and Related Land Resources" (U.S. Water Resources Council, 1973). Because these principles and standards originally proposed four equivalent objectives, the planning concept was often called multi-objective planning, although the term is sometimes used to mean multipurpose planning as well (Barbour, 1975).

These forces have tended to expand the definition of river basin planning both in terms of what is treated within a basin and in terms of the influence from, and impact on, areas outside the basin. Specifically, modern day engineering has made large scale transfers of water and energy outside the basin a fact (Fox, 1973), and quite often units of socio-economic planning do not coincide with the borders of a river basin. When this is the case, close coordination and consideration of these units and their activities, or even the development of an overall organization that includes the existing planning entities having interests in the river basin, will be required (Sweet, 1969).

III. The planning process

Planning is a process which seeks solutions to problems and needs or which develops actions that will satisfy goals and objectives. In river basin planning, the objective is to provide a decision maker with alternative recommendations for the use of the basin's land and water resources. Normally planning is not accomplished as one continuous activity but is broken down into several steps (Figure 1).

First, there are a number of preliminary activities which indicate a need for planning. These may be outside influences or they may be influences that are the culmination of a previous planning exercise. The point to be made is that planning does not take place in a vacuum. Geographic areas having no development or plans for development are now rare. In almost all cases decisions and plans, at varying degrees of detail, scale, and commitment, have already been made and certain political, social, and economic characteristics of a region or country exist which will influence and condition the planning process. These characteristics must be considered in any planning activity because each can and does influence the degree to which environmental concerns can be dealt with.

Second, the needs and problems are defined and objectives set or refined, depending on whether or not it is the first or a later iteration of the process.

Third, an inventory is made of available resources potentially useful for solving the problems and meeting the objectives. An inventory of current demands for use of those resources is also prepared so that a balance of resource supply and resource demand can be made.

The fourth step is to formulate a set of strategies or projects and program alternatives that will meet the objectives.

The fifth step is to evaluate these strategies, projects, and program alternatives in terms of cost and benefits - which must include social as well as economic cost accounting - and to rank them according to some kind of priority.

The sixth step is to decide which of the projects may be ready for "execution," which should be discarded as not feasible, and which should be reexamined.

Thus, the planning process goes forward in a series of steps and iterations. Although these steps and iterations in developmental planning may be called by different names and variously arranged, most planning agencies undertake three or four separate studies prior to project or program execution, depending upon the amount and quality of available data. Each of these steps is more detailed. This leads to increasing degrees of commitment to a strategy, program, or project in terms of social, economic, political, and technical considerations.

Figure 1. Generalized scheme of the planning process

For the purpose of this report, the stages of the planning process are: reconnaissance, prefeasibility, feasibility, and final design.

· Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance is the earliest stage of planning and includes a review of previous plans, projects, and programs; a brief inventory of human and natural resource data; and a summarization of suggested development needs and projects. Relevant public and private institutions are requested to identify the geographic and subject matter areas to be investigated during the next stage. The reconnaissance stage provides the basis for prefeasibility studies and includes an estimate of the time and skills required, costs, and general terms of reference.

· Prefeasibility

Prefeasibility is the second planning stage and includes an inventory and evaluation of human and natural resources guided by the developmental objectives and findings of the reconnaissance survey; identification and analysis of areas and projects of major interest; and sometimes preliminary designs of structures. It recommends studies to be undertaken in the feasibility stage. Prefeasibility studies usually offer at least two alternatives to meet the objectives. Each alternative is examined in terms of social, economic, political, and technical costs and benefits.

The prefeasibility stage estimates the quantity of work and costs required for the feasibility stage. It formulates the terms of reference and financing. Findings from this stage should enable each project to be ranked in accordance with developmental objectives and should be presented to enable the selection of the projects to be studied in the feasibility stage.

· Feasibility

The feasibility stage includes studies made to determine demand and supply with respect to each development project and to designate projects for execution. If structures are required, detailed studies of the topography, geology, and mechanics of the selected areas are made. Detailed maps of existing and potential land use are made and technical/economic conditions are defined for achieving the potential. Project construction is planned and costs and benefits are calculated.

· Final Design

Final design is the last stage in planning and includes the design of the projects selected for construction. These projects (dams, canals, flood ways, roads, etc.) should be designed to meet the developmental objectives, including those of safety and environmental protection.

IV. Environment

The environment, the surroundings, as used herein is man-centered. It consists of the ecosystems that surround and support human life.

An ecosystem is a geographic unit or organization which comprises a community of living organisms and its nonliving environment. Since each ecosystem is somewhat arbitrarily defined, there are innumerable ecosystems in the world. A large ecosystem, such as a river basin, contains many other ecosystems, such as forests, lakes, rivers, farms, pastures, and cities. There is a biological portion which may, and quite often does, include man; there is a physical portion which influences and is influenced by the activities of the biological portion; and there are a large number of processes which condition the interactions between the components. These interactions may be defined by material and energy flows, and can be measured in calories, grams, or dollars as well as by movements and behavior of populations.

Because of mankind's overwhelming influence over many of those ecosystems with which he interacts and because many of the relationships among men and between men and their environment may be both qualitatively and quantitatively unique, environmental classifications have been established to take this into account. For example, the environment may be divided into three major interacting ecosystems (urban, rural, and natural) that are distinguished on the basis of the source and amount of energy necessary for their functioning (Odum, 1976). The urban ecosystem is dependent upon fossil fuels while the natural ecosystem is based upon the energy of sunlight. A rural ecosystem utilizes both fossil fuels and sunlight.

Another classification divides the environment between cultural and natural ecosystems and treats the cultural impact in terms of its influence on the stability and continuity of the environment.

It is not possible or practical to include all aspects of environmental concerns in river basin planning, although, to some degree, each must be touched upon. Nevertheless, relevant environmental concerns must include those related to ecology, human well-being, and natural resource management.

· Concerns having an ecological base

There are a number of principles in ecology on which a discussion of both environmental planning and environmental impact could be based. Perhaps the most important of these defines our universe as one of linkages and interdependency; of cause and effect. Factors of the environment that act on an individual do not act separately and independently. If one factor of the environment is changed, shifts in the quantity and quality of other environmental factors follow. And, because of the intricacy of the whole environment, anticipation of these innumerable actions is difficult and sometimes impossible. When and if changes result in the betterment of the human condition then "development" can be said to have taken place. However, in addition to changes that favor development, almost inevitably other changes occur which have a negative impact. It is the goal of development planning to ensure that, in both time and space, the positive changes outweigh the negative changes.

A second principle of the science of ecology is that of diversity. Although the idea that complex (diverse) ecosystems are stable has recently been called into question, the positive nature of diversity itself still appears valid (May, 1973; Goodman, 1975).

Greater species diversity tends to provide a larger number of checks and balances within an ecosystem. Outbreaks of insect pests, for example, are less possible if these insects are preyed upon by several different species. If the insect in question is preyed upon by more than one species, eliminating one of its predators is not necessarily so important for controlling it.

Intra-species diversity is also important since it provides a larger gene pool and, therefore, a wider range of tolerances. This could mean the difference between survival and extinction of a species given a change in environment. There is a practical side to this in that scientists, using the gene pool of wild races, often are able to breed new races of domesticated species that are more productive, or more resistant to disease, drought, heat, or other environmental factors. And, since the commercial or scientific value of vast numbers of wild species of both fauna and flora are still to be investigated, care should be taken in planning developmental projects not to unknowingly eliminate potentially valuable species. Each species has a different set of optimal living conditions; therefore the environment can be more efficiently utilized when a large number of different species is present.

A diversity of ecosystems, as well as a diversity of species, is important. Much of the interest in saving endangered species is really an attempt to keep a particular ecosystem intact. This is felt to be necessary because there is increasing evidence that these natural ecosystems play an important, if not generally recognized, role in maintaining the quality of human life (flood control; diminishing the catastrophic effects of natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and hurricanes; amelioration of contamination; soil stabilization; primary production; air quality; etc.) (Gosselink et al, 1974; Odum, 1976). An additional concern is to safeguard species and ecosystems for investigation since so much has been learned and is yet to be learned from them about the processes that affect the human population.

A concern of this methodology is to protect and use the diversity of species and ecosystems as much as possible, given the constraints of development and the realities of the areas under consideration.

It is also important to understand the trophic level structure and food chains in an ecosystem when planning the development of a river basin. Trophic levels describe the flow of energy from sunlight to plants (biologic producers), to consumers, and then to decomposers. Food chains describe the flow of nutrients and other materials through the same levels. At each stage some energy is lost through respiration and waste and these phenomena have their ramifications in the world's food supply. Not only is it cheaper, it is also more efficient in terms of energy use, for man to utilize the lower rather than the higher trophic levels as his food source. Likewise, species which are, or could be, economically important to man are often dependent on seemingly insignificant species at a lower trophic level - the loss of which could mean the loss of species at a higher trophic level which are actually or potentially important economically. Trophic structure is important in the cycling of certain materials, such as nutrients, where the elimination of one level within the structure may break the cycle and cause the loss of nutrients from the ecosystem. The relatively tight cycling of nutrients between soil and vegetation in a tropical rain forest is an example. Normally, nutrients released from the decomposition of forest litter are almost immediately returned to the plants. Deforestation interrupts the cycle because of the large quantities of material available for decomposition and the faster rates of decomposition due to elevated soil temperatures on the unshaded soil. Nutrients are lost through rapid leaching or washing when the lack of forest cover allows more rapid runoff of water from heavy rainfall. Man-made poisions are another means through which tropic structure may be broken by concentration of the poisons through the food chains until eventually a point is reached in which one or more members of a chain is eliminated to the detriment of the levels dependent on it.

It is, then, an environmental concern in planning to identify trophic level structures and food chains; to know their function in river basin ecosystems. Only then can predictions be made of the result of man's intervention through developmental projects and suggested projects proposed to take advantage of these processes.

A knowledge of the successional stages within an ecosystem may also be necessary in river basin planning. Succession is defined as "an orderly, predictable process of community changes that modifies the physical environment and culminates in the most biologically stable ecosystem possible on a given site" (Odum, 1963). It results because in the early stages of ecosystem development, organism production competes for available resources, leading to the survival of the best adapted species. Domesticated food and fiber crops are examples of man's attempt to hold succession at an early stage so that he can harvest the maximum energy. Uninfluenced, ecosystem development proceeds toward the later successional stages, arrestable only through the insertion of energy into the ecosystem. The more alien these systems are to the local environment, the more costly the energy input. Since the later successional stages often diverge from the organismal composition required by the life support system needed by man, careful control is a necessity for man's survival. It is an environmental concern in river basin planning to help identify the possibilities for and to detail the problems involved in these controls.

· Concerns based on human well-being

Certain concerns of human well-being are also environmental concerns in river basin planning. The first of these is the physical and psychological health of the human population as influenced by changes in the environment brought on by development. Air, water, and soil contamination by the residuals of development are major example. These are disruptive because contaminants are, in many ways, exotics and there is no built-in mechanism in the affected ecosystem to adequately deal with them. Consequently, they can be detrimental to human health as they eventually make their way to the human body by the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Once ingested, they may become debilitating and may even cause death. Or, they may become offensive to the quality of life that is expected by a population.

Environmental changes brought on by development have a large role in epidemics and disease transmission because: a) the changes take place so rapidly and, b) new habitats are created that are more conducive to the growth and development of disease vectors. Man and other species have survived because they have adapted. The problem is the time it takes to adapt. Any rapid change in the environment does not allow time for adaptation to take place.

Mental health and a related factor, human interest, are also concerns. Both involve the desire of human beings for an environment that is varied and pleasing. This means a clean environment and an opportunity for recreation in natural and rural areas as well as in urban ones. Since planning provides for the future, it should be the concern of river basin planning to take this desire into account when considering the long-term needs of man.

The role of a people's culture and history in their own well-being, be they primitive or developed, is one that is undervalued if not discounted completely by developers. Battles are fought as much over culture and history as they are over economic and natural resources.

Likewise, a change of social organization or a shift in values often leads to a breakdown of traditional land tenure and land use practices. This, in turn, leads to the destruction of vegetative cover, to soil loss, and to a deterioration of water quality.

Closely allied are religion and aesthetics. A people, at whatever level of development, hold these as intrinsic values. A people, their culture, history, religion, and sense of aesthetics have all evolved within an ecosystem and form a part of that ecosystem. Any rapid change, including efforts at development, is disruptive. Therefore, it is an environmental concern to aid in the consideration and preservation or the orderly transformation of these elements during the planning process.

· Concerns for natural resource conservation

Natural resource conservation concerns are based on the fact that natural resource use is causing steady depletion of resources. The fact that many of these resources are renewable does not mean that they are inexhaustible. Furthermore, overuse and abuse of these resources create a need for exploitation of as yet untapped areas over and above the needs of economic growth. Soils, water, and forests are examples and, in a very real sense, we are living off capital instead of interest on capital. In many areas of the world, new land brought into "production" through reclamation, irrigation, and land clearing barely offsets the loss of production caused by erosion and salinization (Eckholm, 1976).

At the same time that demand for water grows, water supply is decreased - made unusable due to contamination; or lost because of rapid runoff, mismanagement, and high evaporation rates that are neither necessary nor wanted.

Requirements for forest products increase also, but again, the policy too often seems to be to fulfill present requirements with little thought about future needs. Conservation does not necessarily mean "no use"; it means wise, sustained use, and it is a concern of river basin planning to insure that natural resources are wisely used.

Preservation, as well as conservation, is also of concern and may, in and of itself, be a "use." Preserved areas such as national parks and reserves are primarily developed in areas that are "environmentally" critical; upstream watersheds, estuaries, and swamps are examples. The preservation of upstream watersheds protects downstream infrastructures from too much and too little water; the preservation of estuaries protects offshore fisheries and onshore development; and the protection of swamps is a very efficient flood control measure. Indeed, the highest sustained economic return from many areas often occurs by preserving them in their natural state. As a consequence, planning should consider preservation as a viable alternative to development.

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