The overall results for the Bogotá, Guandu, and Alto Mayo basins (Fig. 2 and Table 3) showed that human needs (as measured by ES) were being met fairly well in Guandu and Alto Mayo (ESGuandu = 74 and ESAltoMayo = 85); yet, was occurring at the expense of ecosystem ecology (as measured by EV; EVGuandu = 42 and EVAltoMayo = 79). In the Bogotá basin, which scored lower in both categories compared to the other two basins, the demand of water-related services was already being met poorly (ESBogotá = 36) and EV was found to be severely degraded (EVBogotá = 25). For the Governance and Stakeholders (GS) component, the summary scores highlighted that the governance structure may need to be significantly improved in all three basins (GSAltoMayo = 38, GSBogotá = 43, GSGuandu = 26) to secure ecosystem ecology while sustaining the benefits that people depend on.
The preamble provided by the three components in the FHI framework (EV, ES, and GS) gives a quick overview of the overall trajectory of the freshwater systems. While the trade-off between ecological integrity and maximizing certain services is apparent by the negative correlations between the overall scores for the EV and ES components, clearly the three basins have specific contextual issues. Indicator scores helped to create a narrative in this context that can be useful for improving the planning process and support more informed decision-making, with the potential to lead to more effective IWRM. The paragraphs below highlight key management insights from interpreting the FHI results in light of the three actionable elements for effective implementation of IWRM: cooperation, identification of problems and solutions, and agreement on common objectives.
FHI Contribution to Cooperation
In Latin America, the formation of river basin committees or commissions has been a common approach to facilitate cooperation around water resource management (Akhmouch 2012; Hidalgo-Toledo et al. 2019; Mancilla García and Bodin 2019; Trindade and Scheibe 2019). Participatory cooperation structures such as basin committees require effective communication and group understanding to coordinate stakeholders with different backgrounds, perspectives, goals, and interests. In other words, there is a need to foster social learning so that there is the generation of a broader knowledge from which collective decisions can be taken on the choice of priorities, measures, and strategies (Pahl-Wostl 2002; Wehn et al. 2017). Throughout the applications of the FHI in the three countries, many discussions, centered around the linkages between the components of EV and ES, appeared to contribute to the co-creation of knowledge, providing insights into the causes of a situation and the means of its possible transformation (Wehn et al. 2017).
One example of this happened during the validation of the preliminary FHI results in Bogotá. Through a series of group dynamics, stakeholders were able to collectively realize that the poor health of the Basin Condition indicator (51)—which is characterized by the status of the land cover, stream bank modification, and flow connectivity—can have clear negative consequences on Flood Regulation (10, Fig. 3d). While all three sub-indicators of Basin Condition were problematic in Bogotá (Table 3 and Fig. 3a–c), the moderate score for Land Cover Naturalness (57, Fig. 3a) was particularly useful to the co-creation of knowledge. Stakeholders connected their observations that the middle and upper portions of the Bogotá basin, where urbanization, industrialization, and farming (agriculture and pasture) concentrate, are more susceptible to frequent flooding; this, in turn, facilitated their recognition of the critical role that natural vegetation plays in flood regulation. As a result, stakeholders questioned the effectiveness of hydraulic engineering measures to control floods present in the middle and upper portions of the Bogotá basin. This analysis was further supported by the score of the Bank Modification sub-indicator (48, Fig. 3b), reflecting the high degree of channelization of the drainage system in urban- and agricultural-dominated areas. This example highlights that the FHI not only distilled information available in various technical reports (e.g., CAR 2006, 2019), but also provided a common language and a platform for stakeholders to discuss and absorb the information. The prospect is that such collective understanding of basin issues can enhance coordination of a wide range of stakeholders.
We also noted that using familiar topics as entry points often led to better cooperation around sensitive or typically neglected issues. For example, the relationship between water quality and disease regulation was a delicate topic during stakeholder meetings in all three countries. Stakeholders were aware that water quality affects both the ecological stream functioning (WQAltoMayo = 66, WQBogotá = 7, WQGuandu = 31) as well as various human uses (WQRAltoMayo = 77, WQRBogotá = 16, WQRGuandu = 51). In most cases, where water quality appeared compromised, the realization that sewage contamination (Fig. 4) was the main driver of these patterns served as a stimulus for discussions about the occurrence of water-related diseases. This dynamic was most noticeable by the results for Guandu.
Water-related disease in Guandu was a major issue for stakeholders given that they assigned it the highest relative importance among all four regulating services (Fig. 5) and its score (19) was the second lowest among all measured ES indicators (Table 3). The low score for Disease Regulation, which included scores for four different diseases (see “Methods” in Supplementary Material), was driven by the individual score obtained for diarrhea (0.12) that was calculated based on levels of fecal coliforms. The results showed that 19 of the 28 monitoring stations had levels exceeding Brazil’s Class 1 standard of 1000/100 mL more than 15% of the time.
Poor water quality and its relationship with water security has been a chronic problem in most developing countries mainly due to discharges of raw sewage into rivers and streams (Benavides et al. 2019; IANAS 2019). Although this potential linkage seems intuitive, disease and public health issues are not typically addressed directly in water resource management discussions. By assigning a high importance to Disease Regulation in relation to other regulating services and noting its poor performance (Fig. 5), stakeholders underscored the need and their willingness for better coordination particularly since this issue of disease burden is also closely associated with issues of social justice; another priority that is implicit but not commonly operationalized in IWRM.
FHI Contribution to Identification of Problems and Solutions
By representing freshwater ecosystems as dynamic social–ecological networks, we observed that the FHI can contribute to deepening managers’ ability to understand linkages and feedbacks between human water needs and the basin’s ecological condition and ability to meet those needs, ultimately improving their capacity to identify solutions. The sediment regulation indicator results in Alto Mayo demonstrate how connections between the status of certain ES and the expectation stakeholders have for the supply of those services can reveal hidden problems or “blind spots”.
Sediment Regulation had the lowest score (60) among all measured services in the Alto Mayo basin, indicating that its demand is being met moderately, an outlier in comparison to all the other services (with scores > 75). Despite the relatively low score, Sediment Regulation was the service for which stakeholders showed the least concern, based on its low weight (Fig. 5). This mismatch between low score (e.g., signaling a problematic area) and low weight sparked inquiries from stakeholders during meetings, which created the opportunity to discuss related management topics, such as hydropower expansion coupled with forest conservation.
Six hydroelectric power plants have been authorized in the Alto Mayo basin: two within the borders of the study area (CH Las Orquideas and CH Naranjos II) and four in the Mayo River just downstream of the study basin outlet (CH Mayo I-IV) (ANA 2015a, b). Such hydropower expansion is part of the plan to increase Peru’s energy capacity, since only 1% of the surface water volume of the Huallaga basin, which encompasses the Alto Mayo basin, is used for human activities (ANA 2016). At the same time, the Alto Mayo basin is home to one of the most important forest reserves in the country. However, the pattern of continued deforestation in the region and its association with increased soil erosion may compromise hydroelectricity generation capacity in the long term.
Linking these issues through the FHI provided an opportunity for stakeholders to understand the importance of forests for sediment retention and the relevance of conservation-based territorial plans to reduce erosion while safeguarding the provision of hydroelectric energy. These issues were not under discussion by the Alto Mayo sub-basin committee, which previously had focused almost exclusively on water quality and quantity. In addition to elucidating priorities, this example also shows that viewing socio-ecological linkages and feedbacks can facilitate understanding of where and to what extent water-related ecosystems support services. The expectation is, therefore, that such clarity could serve as a strong motivation for stakeholders to try to minimize negative impacts and protect upstream ecosystems as part of the solution.
FHI Contribution to Agreement on Common Objectives
Agreement is key for effective IWRM as it can seal the willingness of a diverse group of stakeholders to attain common objectives. Agreements contribute to planning and preparedness around watershed management issues such as the development of water infrastructure and placement of protected areas (e.g., Jiménez et al. 2020). Further, the process of building agreements may help establish or maintain important channels of communication for stakeholders that may have less than ideal diplomatic relationships but still need to work together on basic issues related to local and regional water security (Jiménez et al. 2020). For instance, in highly engineered basins, such as the Guandu and Bogotá basins, there is commonly a power imbalance between water utility companies and other water users, but a there is still a common objective of providing water of sufficient quantity and quality to the large metropolitan populations.
Consensus building is a key first step to achieving agreement, and the application of the FHI in Latin America was effective in attaining it. The emergence of a shared vision during the final stakeholder meeting in Guandu is a practical example. Stakeholders in Guandu collectively agreed that the basin’s management must aim for water resilience within the basin, which means a decreased reliance on water diversion from the Paraíba do Sul basin. This common vision emerged from reflections on the meaning and status of two indicators, Water Supply Reliability Relative to Demand (WSRD) and Deviation from Natural Flow (DvNF).
First, stakeholders considered that the high value of WSRD (99), indicating a near perfect balance between water demand and supply, can mislead management actions because it does not depict Guandu’s natural water availability, which is far from sufficient to meet the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region’s water demand without the transposition from the Paraíba do Sul that provides about 90% of the total water volume in Guandu (González-Bravo et al. 2019). In other words, the high WSRD score merely reflects that water needs were almost universally met, regardless of the source. Yet, stakeholders recognized that the results highlight how fragile water availability is in the region because the score of WSRD must be analyzed alongside the score of DvNF. As the very low DvNF score (4) is associated with significant increases in discharge from water transfers from the Paraíba do Sul basin (Fig. 6), there is a constant threat of water shortage because the Paraíba do Sul also supplies water to the largest metropolitan region in Brazil (in São Paulo) (ANA 2015a, b; PROFILL 2017).
The common vision of a resilient Guandu basin was corroborated by results from the weighting exercise, indicating that the ES that stakeholders were most concerned about was water provisioning. Provisioning services were valued much higher than the other two groups of services (Fig. 5, weight of 0.52). And, between the two provisioning services sub-indicators, Water Supply Reliability was by far the more important service (0.85) compared to Biomass Consumption (i.e., fish and related aquatic material). Moreover, the measure of consensus for this weighting was 0.93 (1.0 being the maximum), which was the highest degree of group consensus we observed across all three basins and all indicator groupings (Vollmer et al. 2020). Thus, the FHI results provided a platform for building consensus around a common vision that is fundamental for achieving further agreement on common problems. And it is clear from this example that, more than sophisticated data or models, consensus on management issues can be built via deep discussion of more basic information together with the end-users.
The Governance and Stakeholder (GS) assessments were the first quantitative assessments of water governance undertaken at the basin scale for the three study areas and among the first examples of this level of analysis of water governance within Latin America (Vollmer et al. 2020). The aim of the GS component is not to provide objectively “correct” scores but to illuminate stakeholders’ perception of the effectiveness of the GS in place as it relates to freshwater management and use. Compared to the other two FHI components (EV and ES), the low score for the GS component was one of the most sensitive subjects discussed during stakeholder meetings in all three basins.
On the one hand, as the scores reflected the collective perception among stakeholders from each basin, the discussions created a space for frank dialog and reflection on sensitive governance issues. An environment of honesty and trust such as that fostered during the FHI meetings is required to build public confidence and ensure inclusiveness of stakeholders, thereby safeguarding a favorable environment for good water governance according to the OECD Principles on Water Governance (OECD 2015b, 2018). On the other hand, the low score for GS compared to the other two FHI components (Fig. 2) reflects the continued global challenge of achieving effective water governance (Neto et al. 2018; Romano and Akhmouch 2019) and emphasizes the enormous improvements in a wide range of social areas (Tables 1 and 3) required to attain effective watershed management in face of the rapidly changing conditions that will make water governance even more complex in the coming years.
When reflecting on the comparative GS scores across basins, stakeholders from Brazil offered the following insight: as GS scores are based on perception, they are likely anchored by stakeholders’ expectations, and although this varies by individual, it may also be generally influenced by the “maturity” of the water governance system in each place. This reflection is partially corroborated by the fact that the lowest GS score was observed for Guandu, followed by the GS score in Perú, and Colombia with the highest GS score (Table 3 and Fig. 2). Guandu belongs to the country (Brazil) with the oldest water law (1997) among the three countries studied—the water law in Perú and Colombia is more recent, 2009 and 2010, respectively. This difference of “maturity” in the structuring of water resources management could be influencing the expectation that stakeholders in each basin have about the effectiveness of their respective water governance system. In other words, the lowest observed GS score for the Guandu basin in relation to the scores of the other two countries could be reflecting the fact that stakeholders in Guandu are demanding and expecting more from their GS at the moment—a pattern also observed in the FHI application in the Lower Mekong basin, when comparing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (Liu et al. 2019). A more mature water governance in Brazil given its older water law is possible because better understanding on the role of a collaborative and democratic management models, such as watershed committees, are observed where stakeholders participate on committees that are older, and that have management instruments under implementation and greater institutional articulation (Trindade and Scheibe 2019). Still, the pattern described above underscores that the governance indicators of the FHI are not designed to be compared across countries, given the differing contexts as well as stakeholders’ expectations.
One of the requirements for effective water governance is transdisciplinary thinking, so that decisions adequately balance competing priorities and account for the long-term sustainability of freshwater ecosystems (e.g., Pahl-Wostl et al. 2020). Specific analysis on whether stakeholders were predisposed to transdisciplinary thinking suggests that stakeholders from Bogotá and Guandu might be less focused on cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary approaches to governance, compared to those of the Alto Mayo. This is because stakeholders in the Alto Mayo basin tended to grade interdisciplinary themes higher than stakeholders in the Bogotá and Guandu basins (Fig. 7). Such a pattern aligns with the fact that, in most large, urbanized basins, such as Guandu and Bogotá, water utilities and large infrastructure operators typically have formidable ability to exercise social and political dominion over the management of water resources due to, for example, their large-scale, centralized infrastructure (Swyngedouw 2009). As a result, technocratic thinking usually prevails (Trindade and Scheibe 2019; Lemos et al. 2020). In the Alto Mayo basin, conversely, stakeholders tended to think in a more integrated and collaborative way, possibly because the basin is still in a near-pristine condition, i.e., the connection that residents hold with nature in the basin might be allowing for a more holistic view of water management. This is corroborated by the fact that the water management system in Perú was inspired by principles of IWRM, such as promoting a holistic vision of water accounting for different interests (Mancilla García and Bodin 2019). Interestingly, the pattern found for Alto Mayo somewhat contradicts the fact that participation in water councils in Perú tend to be highly technocratic as stakeholders there present the identity of the councils as very much tied to the technical secretariat, staffed with engineers from the National Water Authority, who usually prepare and orient the discussions at council meetings (Mancilla García and Bodin 2019). Overall, there is still a need to foster transdisciplinary thinking in a more direct manner to improve IWRM practice in Latin America. And the FHI framework can contribute by bringing together and providing a common language for a diverse group of stakeholders that would otherwise may not be working collaboratively.
Considerations on the Results of Weights
The sensitivity analysis we performed on the individual weights (Fig. S2) did underscore that not all participants agreed on the relative priorities. While this does not impact the scores for the 18 sub-indicators measured under the ES and GS components, it would have an impact on the aggregated scores for the seven major indicators, as well as the top-level component scores. We found that the range of possible scores was much greater for ES in all three basins, and much more constrained for GS, due mainly to the fact that the GS sub-indicators had uniformly low scores (Table 3), and thus strong preferences for one over another had limited effect on the weighted mean. The impact of varing the weights was most pronounced in Guandu, where, at an individual respondent level, the score for the ES component ranged from the mid-40s (e.g., critically unhealthy) to 90, but this variation was determined mostly by the relative importance an individual placed on the Regulating and Support Services sub-indicators (which had scores ranging from 19 to 67). As a group, Regulating and Support Services also scored far below Provisioning and Cultural Services, leading to another source of uncertainty when the three major indicator scores were averaged to the ES component score. In other words, while the group average weighted score of 74 suggested moderate health, there are individuals within the group of decision makers who would likely disagree with that generalization.
Insights on Information Needs
An inability to generate and process data to create the transdisciplinary knowledge required for IWRM has been previously identified as one of the most important challenges Latin American countries must overcome to improve water governance in the region (Akhmouch 2012) and is still a major bottleneck to be overcome (Benavides et al. 2019). These deficiencies were observed in all three study basins in the form of data scarcity and fragmentation (e.g., multiple institutions holding different portions of the same dataset) as well as low-quality data (e.g., incomplete timeseries and datasets lacking metadata). Not surprisingly, stakeholders in all three basins perceived Technical Capacity as one of the most critical sub-indicators in the GS component (Table 3). Many participants expressed particular interest in platforms to aggregate a multitude of datasets and visualize the relationships between different variables in a meaningful and simple way. Enhanced technical capacity not only can contribute to better-informed decisions (Lemos et al. 2020) but also can contribute to the democratization of decision-making. In Brazil, for example, the lack of knowledge of discussion topics by representatives of civil society is one of the main reasons for the sporadic and limited participation of this group of users in watershed committees (Trindade and Scheibe 2019). All of this strengthens the case for the utility of the FHI framework to integrate available data as well as co-implement and disseminate knowledge on watershed management.
Not only can the FHI contribute to improving access to useful information, but it can also identify critical data gaps that, if filled, could contribute to better watershed management locally. Following the global pattern (Foster and Ait-Kadi 2012, Lall et al. 2020), one significant gap identified in all three basins was groundwater data, as no organized monitoring scheme appears to have been implemented for the study basins. This is mostly notable in places such as Alto Mayo because, although stakeholders rely primarily on surface water allocation to meet their needs, there are plans to expand groundwater abstraction in the near future (ANA 2015a, b). As the Alto Mayo basin is home to one of the most important groundwater sources from karst formations in South America (Grandjouan et al. 2017) due to its high resurgence rate (discharges can reach up to 24 m3/s) (Bigot et al. 2014), filling the knowledge gap on groundwater availability and extraction is critical for the sustainable use of groundwater resources in the region.
Another data gap of relevance to watershed management observed in all three study basins was data needed to calculate the indicator of Biomass for Consumption. Inland fisheries are commonly afforded low importance among decision makers, despite their relevance as a food source (Lynch et al. 2020). Although inland extractive fishing appeared not economically relevant for any of the three basins, artisanal fishing might be for local communities. Still, understanding the extent of its significance requires improved monitoring systems as exemplified by the situation in Guandu. There, fishing activities in the Sepetiba bay, into which the Guandu River flows, are one of the main sources of fisheries products in the region (Brasil 2013), but they have been threatened directly by the management of the Guandu basin in the form of increased heavy metals discharge, predatory fishing, and lack of enforcement in the region (Ribeiro et al. 2014, 2015; MPF 2015). For FHI assessments related to coastal basins, therefore, data on marine fish species that can enter freshwater rivers and streams, such as the Diapterus rhombeus in Guandu, are crucial to providing a more complete understanding of the relationship between people’s dependence on biodiversity and the overall state of freshwater health.