How to improve estuary governance - a new report on the Elbe, Scheldt and Humber estuaries

27 May 2020 - Published by Lisa Simone de Grunt

Governmental and decision making structures and processes at the Elbe, Humber and Scheldt were compared. The aim was to elaborate lessons and best practices from estuaries with comparable physical, economical and societal characteristics  - and hence comparable challenges and tensions between actors and their interests -  although if different governance structures and cultures may exist. Despite the discovered differences in mutual dependencies between actors as well as cultural differences, that affect governance modes, recommendations to further improve stakeholder involvement at the Elbe are provided.

Lessons for the three estuaries

  1. differences in mutual dependencies between actors and cultural differences affect governance modes. The study revealed that in a hierarchical and fragmented governance mode (as found in all estuaries) a more collaborative and integrated mode of governance can grow over time. In the Scheldt appreciation for a collaborative approach grew after jointly drafting a long and medium-term vision by The Netherlands and Flanders. In the Elbe the need for collaboration is also recognized but constrained partly due to the governmental system of powerful federal states. As a result authorities are hesitant to abandon formal powers and to apply a more collaborative approach. Additionally, it may be part of a strong cultural pattern in Germany that emphasises the importance of formal procedures and planning based on the formal distribution of powers and tasks. Therefore, the collaborative approach as found at the Scheldt, fundamentally does not fit the context at the Elbe. Stronger collaboration at the Elbe can only grow over time and above all forms of cooperation, and a mode has to be found that fits the formal and legalistic approach.

  2. effective stakeholder participation is a chicken-egg problemThe comparison between the Elbe and Scheldt suggests that stakeholder involvement in the Elbe is currently at a level of involvement that was the case in the Scheldt 10 to 15 years ago during the phase of the joint vision making. In the Scheldt stakeholders experienced a positive impact of the collaboration of the Netherlands and Flanders and of participation through a stakeholder council. For the Elbe this ‘proof’ of positive impact is not yet available. The stakeholder platform at the Elbe has to ‘prove’ the value of its existence by showing how decision-making can be improved and made more time efficient. Comparing Elbe and Scheldt to the Humber shows that a more centralised platform for stakeholder participation makes sense for estuaries with higher levels of conflicting interest (Elbe and Scheldt) then for estuaries with lower levels of conflict (Humber).

  3. a joint knowledge base promotes conflict resolution and collaboration. This study revealed that a focus on having a knowledge base that is based on joint fact-finding (as used in the Scheldt) was very effective in reducing and/or preventing conflicts. As actors agree on the knowledge that is used for decision-making possible conflicts about these decisions are better understood amongst actors and therefore also less pronounced. Even more joint development of knowledge helps understand different interests better and hence enhances collaboration between actors. In the Elbe, both the knowledge as well as monitoring are organised more fragmented then in the Scheldt. For both estuaries the implementation of joint fact finding is interesting to explore.

  4. long-term visions can contribute to the integration of policy issues. The experience with the long-term vision in the Scheldt shows that it is a powerful intervention to create conditions for good governance as it facilitates the integration of issues and creates a basis for actors for a common understanding about conflicting issues such as sediment management or nature development. Another important benefit of the long-term vision has been the joint development of a knowledge base. As stated above this also contributed to the conflict resolution between actors. However, long-term visions are not the most obvious interventions for Elbe and Humber at this moment, as actors are not acquainted with this type of visions and associated merits. We think that current conditions at the Elbe and Humber are not suitable to commence a process to draft a long-term vision unless certain circumstances are met. The required circumstances for the Elbe are described as part of the recommendations for the Elbe.

Recommendations for the Elbe

Reasoning from the perspective of the Elbe estuary, higher levels of collaboration are desirable. However, reasoning from the perspective of the actors, a sense of urgency for more collaboration is not present as mutual gains are not easily recognized when multiple actors have different stakes. This is why we conclude that a structure for collaboration as found in the Scheldt estuary is not directly applicable at the Elbe. Furthermore, we also conclude that the drafting of a long-term vision for the Elbe is not feasible at this moment as it does not fit the current political agenda. Therefore, we would like to recommend four other interventions that could increase collaboration of state and non-state actors along the Elbe and can eventually lead to conditions/circumstances in which it is more logical to draft a joint vision. We believe that the development of a joint knowledge program about the tidal part of the Elbe is the way forward to achieve higher levels of collaboration. The general idea of these four interventions is that they succeed each other in time. In this sense these interventions are also steps to take and each step is essential to take before the next step can be taken.  

  • Step 1: Start informal consultations between state actors to develop a joint research agenda for the Elbe. Questions for the informal consultations could be: What mutual interests are at stake? What issues require joint decision in the future? What kind of knowledge about the estuary as a system is desired and necessary to prepare the decisions in the future? 
  • Step 2: Strengthen the position of the “Forum Tideelbe” by formulating a clear order for the Forum that also addresses the responsibilities of the state actors towards the Forum (such as means for doing research, conditions that have to be met to adopt recommendations of the Forum). First order towards the Forum could be to draft an advice about the research agenda and the way this agenda could be executed in a joint knowledge program.
  • Step 3: Execute the research agenda in the form of a joint knowledge program (as drafted during step 1 and completed during step 2) involving the actors represented in the Forum.
  • Step 4: Assign “Forum Tideelbe” with a specific task concerning the knowledge program. There are of course several possibilities to concern, important issues here are: the dissemination of knowledge towards non-state actors and the participation of non-state actors when drafting research questions towards knowledge institutes. 

Final recommendation considers the required circumstances to draft a joint long-term vision. This study shows that only under the condition that mutual trust between state or main responsible actors and between state and non-state actors is grown, the formulation of a joint long-term vision for the Elbe can be feasible. Mutual trust however is not the only requirement, commitment to the joint vision is another important factor. The Scheldt case showed that at the beginning one actor (the Netherlands) believed in this approach whilst another important actor (Flanders) did not believe in the success. This led to the situation that the vision at first was met with great hesitation. This situation will also almost certainly occur in the Elbe estuary. This means that the actor that will promote the idea of a long-term vision, must consider that large investments in time and trust building will be needed to convince other actors to cooperate in the vision making. This is why we recommend commencing with a long-term vision only if steps 1 to 4 have led to sufficient trust, urgency and commitment to a common approach to estuary management.

Download the full report here.