Skip to main content


Log in

An ecosystem service approach to understand conflicts on river flows: local views on the Ter River (Catalonia)

  • Original Article
  • Published:
Sustainability Science Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Claims for a global agenda addressing the need to protect environmental flows are increasing. In the context of frequent conflicts related to unsustainable exploitation of rivers, instream flow policies may result in very different outcomes and involve different beneficiaries. We propose and test an innovative local knowledge-based methodology that uses the ecosystem services approach to disentangle the links within the river-society system. In particular, network analysis is employed to identify potential tradeoffs caused by the river flow management. Our empirical evidence relies on a thorough scrutiny of key stakeholders’ positions in the Ter River basin (Catalonia, Spain). As in other Northern Mediterranean contexts, multiple weirs interrupt the water flow in the upper course, diverting water for hydropower. Meanwhile, in the middle course, the bulk of water flow is transferred to the metropolitan Barcelona contributing to water scarcity in the Lower Ter, where farmers and other users claim against imposed restrictions on access to water flows. Our results point out that (1) in contexts such as the analyzed one, the ‘ecosystem services’ (ES) notion enhances communication among stakeholders; (2) ground-up exercises are essential for identifying river benefits at local scale and characterizing the related ES; and (3) network analysis helps to make explicit tradeoffs between river uses, in which recognition is crucial to understand how conflicts on river flows emerge and how can be managed, (4) management of instream flows should be informed by the complex interaction, herein outlined, between hydrological alterations, components of river ecosystems and the benefits they provide.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Instream flows are those river flows that naturally circulate within river channels. There may also be diverted flows to feed out-of-stream uses. Poff et al. (1997) define ‘environmental flow regime’ as the minimum requirement of water instream flows, seasonally variable, to preserve river ecosystems.

  2. Range of percentages corresponding to the difference between annual water inflow and outflow, in relation to the total inflow to the reservoirs for 2003–2010. The 39 % is on 2010 and the 81 % in 2009. Source: ACA website (

  3. The snowball sampling method consists in asking to informants for 5–10 contacts to become new informants in order to get other new contacts from them and so on. See Goodman (1961) and Biernacki and Waldorf (1981) for further information.


  • ACA (2005) Pla Sectorial de Cabals de Manteniment de les conques internes de Catalunya, PSCM. 67

  • ACA (2009) Aigua i canvi climàtic. Diagnosi dels impactes previstos a Catalunya. 332

  • Arthington AH, Pusey BJ (2003) Flow restoration and protection in Australian rivers. River Res Appl 19:377–395. doi:10.1002/rra.745

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benejam L, Angermeier PL, Munné A, García-Berthou E (2010) Assessing effects of water abstraction on fish assemblages in Mediterranean streams. Freshw Biol 55:628–642. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2427.2009.02299.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benetti AD, Lanna AE, Cobalchini MS (2004) Current practices for establishing environmental flows in Brazil. River Res Appl 20:427–444. doi:10.1002/rra.758

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Biernacki P, Waldorf D (1981) Snowball sampling: problems and techniques of chain referral sampling. Sociol Methods Res 10:141–163

    Google Scholar 

  • Boix D, García-Berthou E, Gascón S et al (2010) Response of community structure to sustained drought in Mediterranean rivers. J Hydrol 383:135–146. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.01.014

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brauman KA, Daily GC, Duarte TK, Mooney HA (2007) The nature and value of ecosystem services: an overview highlighting hydrologic services. Annu Rev Environ Resour 32:67–98. doi:10.1146/

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brisbane Declaration (2007) The Brisbane Declaration: environmental flows are essential for freshwater ecosystem health and human well-being. In: 10th Int. River Symp

  • Brown T (1991) Water for wilderness areas: instream flow needs, protection, and economic value. Rivers 2:311–325

    Google Scholar 

  • Cushman RM (1985) Review of ecological effects of rapidly varying flows downstream from hydroelectric facilities. North Am J Fish Manag 5:330–339. doi: 10.1577/1548-8659(1985)5<330:ROEEOR>2.0.CO;2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • European Commission (2000) Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for community action in the field of water policy, Official Journal 22 December 2000 L 327/1

  • Farley J, Costanza R (2010) Payments for ecosystem services: from local to global. Ecol Econ 69:2060–2068. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.06.010

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fisher B, Turner RK (2008) Ecosystem services: classification for valuation. Biol Conserv 1:8–10

    Google Scholar 

  • Georgescu-Roegen N (1971) The entropy law and the economic problem. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Goodman LA (1961) Snowball sampling. Ann Math Stat 32:148–170

    Google Scholar 

  • Hein L, van Koppen K, de Groot RS, van Ierland EC (2006) Spatial scales, stakeholders and the valuation of ecosystem services. Ecol Econ 57:209–228. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.04.005

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hermanowicz SW (2008) Sustainability in water resources management: changes in meaning and perception. Sustain Sci 3:181–188. doi:10.1007/s11625-008-0055-z

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hirsch PD, Adams WM, Brosius JP et al (2011) Acknowledging conservation trade-offs and embracing complexity. Conserv Biol 25:259–264. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01608.x

    Google Scholar 

  • Kondolf GM (1997) Profile: hungry water: effects of dams and gravel mining on river channels. Environ Manag 21:533–551

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kondolf GM, Wilcock PR (1996) The flushing flow problem: defining and evaluating objectives. Water Resour Res 32:2589–2599. doi:10.1029/96WR00898

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Konrad CP, Warner A, Higgins JV (2012) Evaluating dam re-operation for freshwater conservation in the sustainable rivers project. River Res Appl 28:777–792. doi:10.1002/rra.1524

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kuenzer C, Campbell I, Roch M et al (2012) Understanding the impact of hydropower developments in the context of upstream–downstream relations in the Mekong river basin. Sustain Sci 8:565–584. doi:10.1007/s11625-012-0195-z

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kumar P (2010) The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity: ecological and economic foundations. Earthscan, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Lake PS (2003) Ecological effects of perturbation by drought in flowing waters. Freshw Biol 48:1161–1172. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2427.2003.01086.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lelièvre M, Sérodes JB (1995) A new approach for the identification of environmental issues at stake in a road project. J Environ Manag 44:221–231

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Loomis JB (2002) Quantifying recreation use values from removing dams and restoring free-flowing rivers: a contingent behavior travel cost demand model for the Lower Snake River. Water Resour Res 38:2-1–2-8. doi:10.1029/2000WR000136

    Google Scholar 

  • MA (2003) Ecosystems and human well-being, a framework for assessment. Island Press, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin-Ortega J, Jorda-Capdevila D, Glenk K, Holstead K (2014) Defining ecosystem services-based approaches. In: Martin-Ortega J, Ferrier R, Gordon I, Kahn S (eds) How can ecosyst. serv. approaches help addressing glob. water challenges? Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (in press)

  • McCully P (1996) Silenced rivers: the ecology and politics of large dams. Zed Books, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Ojeda MI, Mayer AS, Solomon BD (2008) Economic valuation of environmental services sustained by water flows in the Yaqui River delta. Ecol Econ 65:155–166. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.06.006

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Poff NL, Allan JD, Bain MB et al (1997) The natural flow regime. A paradigm for river conservation and restoration. Bioscience 47:769–784. doi:10.2307/1313099

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Poff NL, Allan JD, Palmer MA, et al. (2003) River flows and water wars: emerging science for environmental decision making. Front Ecol Environ 1:298–306. doi: 10.1890/1540-9295(2003)001[0298:RFAWWE]2.0.CO;2

  • Posthumus H, Rouquette JR, Morris J et al (2010) A framework for the assessment of ecosystem goods and services; a case study on lowland floodplains in England. Ecol Econ 69:1510–1523. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.02.011

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prats J, Dolz J, Armengol BJ (2009) Variabilidad temporal en el comportamiento hidráulico del curso inferior del río Ebro. Ing Del Agua 16:259–272

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenberg DM, McCully P, Pringle CM (2000) Global-scale environmental effects of hydrological alterations: introduction. Bioscience 50:746–751

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Russi D, ten Brink P, Farmer A et al (2012) The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity for water and wetlands. IEEP, London and Brussels

    Google Scholar 

  • Sabater S, Joâo Feio M, Graça MAS, et al. (2009) The Iberian Rivers. Rivers Eur

  • Sanon S, Hein T, Douven W, Winkler P (2012) Quantifying ecosystem service trade-offs: the case of an urban floodplain in Vienna, Austria. J Environ Manag 111:159–172. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2012.06.008

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scholes R, Reyers B, Biggs R et al (2013) Multi-scale and cross-scale assessments of social–ecological systems and their ecosystem services. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 5:16–25. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2013.01.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seppelt R, Dormann CF, Eppink FV et al (2011) A quantitative review of ecosystem service studies: approaches, shortcomings and the road ahead. J Appl Ecol 48:630–636. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01952.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vörösmarty CJ, McIntyre PB, Gessner MO et al (2010) Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467:555–561. doi:10.1038/nature09440

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • White C, Halpern BS, Kappel CV (2012) Ecosystem service tradeoff analysis reveals the value of marine spatial planning for multiple ocean uses. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:4696–4701. doi:10.1073/pnas.1114215109

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Whiting PJ (2002) Streamflow necessary for environmental maintenance. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 30:181–206. doi:10.1146/

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wuelser G, Pohl C, Hadorn GH (2012) Structuring complexity for tailoring research contributions to sustainable development: a framework. Sustain Sci 7:81–93. doi:10.1007/s11625-011-0143-3

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work has been funded by the project CSO2010-21979 from the Spanish National Program for Basic Research. B. Rodriguez-Labajos also acknowledges funding from the FP7 EU project EJOLT (G.A. 266642). Our gratitude to Carla Romeu-Dalmau and Joan Martinez-Alier for useful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dídac Jorda-Capdevila.

Additional information

Handled by Osamu Saito, UNU-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (IAS), Japan.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 25 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 100 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jorda-Capdevila, D., Rodríguez-Labajos, B. An ecosystem service approach to understand conflicts on river flows: local views on the Ter River (Catalonia). Sustain Sci 10, 463–477 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: