Getting Ahead of the Game: Using Foresight to Address Complex Water-Related Challenges in the Strumica River Basin

11 Feb 2015

 Monospitovo wetlands, Strumica River Basin (Photo: UNDP/ Ljubomir Stefanov)

The successes achieved in UNDP’s major ongoing project to restore the ecosystem of the Prespa Lake Basin are well known and clear for all to see—in the way that local farmers have shifted to more sustainable practices, in the construction of modern water treatment facilities, in Prespa’s first monitoring station, in the region’s first composting plant, in heightened local awareness of the importance of preserving the health of waterbodies… the list goes on and keeps growing as the project proceeds.

But the foundation for the success of the Prespa project is more complex than meets the eye. The sound basis on which all these interlinked efforts have been developed and implemented lies in a detailed set of principles and measures elaborated in the country’s first-ever Watershed Management Plan developed in accordance with the EU Water Framework Directive.  

By adopting this Directive’s basic principles, the planning and implementation efforts for the Prespa Lake Watershed are aligned with the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management—an  approach that has emerged to meet the ever growing complexity and importance of preventing the degradation of global water resources. Behind this concept is the realization that traditional centralized approaches to managing water resources have proven inadequate and that only by democratizing water management and decentralizing decisions can we overcome the many challenges involved in restoring and sustaining the health of waterbodies.

The project has created a model of how theory and concepts can most effectively be transformed into tangible results. In short, the secret behind the success of the Prespa project has been the decentralized and democratic development and implementation of numerous interlinked measures.

Now the success of this model is being replicated to address the water-related challenges in one of the country’s most environmentally sensitive regions—the Strumica River Basin. Funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Strumica project is being led by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Center for Development of the Southeast Region and the six municipalities located along the river: Radovis, Konce, Strumica, Vasilevo, Novo Selo, and Bosilovo.

This new and ambitious project is based on the same principles of integrated water management. The first stage of the project has thus involved in-depth analysis of the water-related challenges, backed by broad consultation with stakeholders to identify the key threats and priorities for the basin.

Restoring the ecosystem of the Strumica River Basin presents an even greater challenge than the Prespa Lake Watershed. The area of the basin is much greater. The population affected is much larger. And the water-related challenges and sensitivities are more complex. For these reasons, engaging stakeholders from the outset has taken on even greater importance. Hence, we used Foresight to help stakeholders map possible, probable, and preferable futures for the Strumica River Basin.

To ensure widespread engagement and participation, UNDP developed an innovative approach by designing a collaborative gaming system to support the preparation of the project’s River Basin Management Plan.

Within less than 6 weeks, a total of 12 workshops have been held, allowing some 300 people from the river basin’s six municipalities to share their knowledge and perceptions of the key areas defined in the EU Water Framework Directive.

The workshop participants further helped the process of developing innovative solutions to water-related challenges, contributing to the creation of scenarios for a more sustainable future for the basin.

To learn more about workshop results, visit our interactive map at www.timescape.io/water-for-life.

All workshop results have been made publicly available, and our #opendev approach supports our efforts to harness local wisdom and generate insights by generating and gathering “small data” using the Water-for-Life foresight eXplorer. This tool has proved so engaging that it has already succeeded in ensuring broad participation for the implementation stage, which will start by mid-2015.

Already this participatory process has identified the prevention of flooding as the top overall priority for local stakeholders—a finding that matches the conclusions of ongoing expert analyses.

This common priority provides an excellent basis for designing and implementing a comprehensive basin-scale flood risk management programme by supporting investments in ecological restoration projects and in the sectors most affected by water-related issues, including agriculture and forestry.

In addition to charting the challenges facing the region, participants were also asked to consider opportunities and wild cards—events that seem unlikely but will have a big impact. Some of the wild card events suggested by participants at the workshops include: bioterrorism, degradation of the Turia Dam, and problems surrounding the Ilovica Mine, which has not yet been constructed. In using the foresight eXplorer to explore radical possibilities for what might lie ahead, workshop attendees have broadened the scope for the forthcoming water management plan, and, perhaps most importantly, enlivened new discussions amongst community stakeholders.

With the first-hand experience gained from applying the new gaming system, we are certain we will prove once again that UNDP’s focus on global innovation is the best way to overcome challenges and exploit opportunities for resource management in the 21st century.

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