A social learning perspective on water governance – experiences from Helge å, Sweden

Olle Olsson1, Maria Osbeck1, Thao Do2 & Neil Powell2


1Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

2 Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University, Uppsala Sweden


An important innovation of the EU Water Framework Directive is its emphasis on how drainage basins, not formal boundaries of jurisdictions, should be the central point of departure for governance of water governance. This is implemented through the development of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), which include a strategy and a set of measures deemed necessary to reach good ecological status in the basin.

In recent years, criticism has been raised against the process in which RBMPs are developed, with an important argument being that it has too much of a top-down character and that there is a need to get a broader set of stakeholders involved. The aim of the BONUS MIRACLE project is to investigate how more stakeholder-driven river management governance frameworks perform in terms of addressing water management issues.

One of the four case study areas in the project is the Helge river basin in Southern Sweden. Water management issues in the basin are multi-faceted and very much characterized by historical man-made alterations of the river and its surroundings. Channeling, hydropower installations and drainage to free up agricultural land are factors that have served important purposes historically but that now pose significant problems in terms of reaching good ecological status. In addition, the basin is characterized by intensive agriculture (in the south) and forestry (in the North) that also contribute to making management of the Helge river basin a wicked problem.

During the three-year BONUS MIRACLE project, a broad set of Helge river position-holders have repeatedly been consulted in a process aimed at developing and testing a bottom-up management strategy for the basin that can serve as a hypothetical alternative to the formal RBMPs. A key finding during the consultations is that whereas the RBMPs are highly focused on mitigating emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus, brownification is the systemic issue in Helge Å according to stakeholders. The consequence is that even if the RBMP are successfully implemented, it may do little to address actual stakeholder concerns.

When stakeholders were invited to help develop alternative pathways, they tended to suggest measures that were more systemic than those typically included in the RBMP. These stakeholder-proposed measures hold the potential of entailing multiple benefits in the basin, but many of the potential benefits are qualitative in nature. This is likely an important reason for the relative absence of systemic measures in the Helge Å RBMP, which is dominated by measures that can more easily be quantified in terms of societal benefits from reduced nutrient emissions. In order to further improve water management structures in the Helge basin and more generally in the EU, it is important that RBMPs incorporate a stronger component of stakeholder involvement away from an excessively reductionist focus on nitrogen and phosphorus.