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Integrating the social, hydrological and ecological dimensions of freshwater health: The Freshwater Health Index

Derek Vollmer, Kashif Shaad, Nicholas J. Souter, Tracy Farrell, David Dudgeon, Caroline A. Sullivan, Isabelle Fauconnier, Glen M. MacDonald, Matthew P. McCartney, Alison G. Power, Amy McNally, Sandy J. Andelman, Timothy Capon, Naresh Devineni, Chusit Apirumanekul, Cho Nam Ng, M. Rebecca Shaw, Raymond Yu Wang, Chengguang Lai, Zhaoli Wang, Helen M. Regan

Science of the Total Environment

June 15, 2018

Degradation of freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide is a primary cause of increasing water insecurity, raising the need for integrated solutions to freshwater management. While methods for characterizing the multi-faceted challenges of managing freshwater ecosystems abound, they tend to emphasize either social or ecological dimensions and fall short of being truly integrative. This paper suggests that management for sustainability of freshwater systems needs to consider the linkages between human water uses, freshwater ecosystems and governance. We present a conceptualization of freshwater resources as part of an integrated social-ecological system and propose a set of corresponding indicators to monitor freshwater ecosystem health and to highlight priorities for management. We demonstrate an application of this new framework -the Freshwater Health Index (FHI) - in the Dongjiang River Basin in southern China, where stakeholders are addressing multiple and conflicting freshwater demands. By combining empirical and modeled datasets with surveys to gauge stakeholders' preferences and elicit expert information about governance mechanisms, the FHI helps stakeholders understand the status of freshwater ecosystems in their basin, how ecosystems are being manipulated to enhance or decrease water-related services, and how well the existing water resource management regime is equipped to govern these dynamics over time. This framework helps to operationalize a truly integrated approach to water resource management by recognizing the interplay between governance, stakeholders, freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide.

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