Search site

School of Geography

Public participation and economic analysis in European water management: Ne’er the twain shall meet?

Contact: Dr. Oliver Fritsch, School of Geography, o.fritsch(at)

One of the oldest and most heavily regulated areas in EU environmental policy, water has always been characterised by serious implementation deficits and a lack of policy effectiveness. Through the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted in December 2000, the EU introduced an extensive set of political instruments to tackle the challenges that have defined the sector for more than four decades. Considering that deficits in coordination lay at the heart of previous failures to regulate European waters, WFD-inspired water management in many European countries emphasises, amongst other things, public participation and the involvement of non-state actors in water planning.

However, at the same time contemporary water management is governed by economics. Accordingly, EU member states should make judgements about the most cost-effective combination of measures in respect of water uses based on estimates of the potential costs of such measures, thereby directing administrations towards cost-effectiveness analysis as the suggested economic method. This is essentially to ensure that member states achieve Euroepan water quality objectives at the lowest cost. In cases where the cost of achieving good status by the identified cost-effective measures appears high, domestic water authorities may perform tests such as disproportionate cost analysis in order to establish whether potential exceptions are warranted. The key question hereby is to what extent the costs of the measures outweigh the benefits of reaching the WFD objectives. From an economic perspective, cost–benefit analysis is the obvious tool to assess this relationship.

However, a tension is apparent between requirements to apply expert-based economic methods in decision-making and the advocacy of public participation. According to the Directive, member states “shall encourage the active involvement of all interested parties in the implementation of the Directive, in particular the production, review and updating of the river basin management plans” (Art. 14(1) WFD). In contrast to the predominantly expert-oriented economic methods, active involvement refers to non-state actors actively participating in the planning process by discussing issues and contributing to their solution.

The aim of this project therefore is to explore the role of economic analysis in participatory water management or, for that matter, the role of public participation in water management mainly guided by economic analysis. To this end, this project will bring together the literature on public participation in environmental governance and economic scholarship and will study the relationship between participation and economics in the UK and other European countries.