• environmental flow assessment;
  • environmental flow methodologies;
  • riverine ecosystems;
  • country applications;
  • global trends;
  • developing regions


Recognition of the escalating hydrological alteration of rivers on a global scale and resultant environmental degradation, has led to the establishment of the science of environmental flow assessment whereby the quantity and quality of water required for ecosystem conservation and resource protection are determined.

A global review of the present status of environmental flow methodologies revealed the existence of some 207 individual methodologies, recorded for 44 countries within six world regions. These could be differentiated into hydrological, hydraulic rating, habitat simulation and holistic methodologies, with a further two categories representing combination-type and other approaches.

Although historically, the United States has been at the forefront of the development and application of methodologies for prescribing environmental flows, using 37% of the global pool of techniques, parallel initiatives in other parts of the world have increasingly provided the impetus for significant advances in the field.

Application of methodologies is typically at two or more levels. (1) Reconnaissance-level initiatives relying on hydrological methodologies are the largest group (30% of the global total), applied in all world regions. Commonly, a modified Tennant method or arbitrary low flow indices is adopted, but efforts to enhance the ecological relevance and transferability of techniques across different regions and river types are underway. (2) At more comprehensive scales of assessment, two avenues of application of methodologies exist. In developed countries of the northern hemisphere, particularly, the instream flow incremental methodology (IFIM) or other similarly structured approaches are used. As a group, these methodologies are the second most widely applied worldwide, with emphasis on complex, hydrodynamic habitat modelling. The establishment of holistic methodologies as 8% of the global total within a decade, marks an alternative route by which environmental flow assessment has advanced. Such methodologies, several of which are scenario-based, address the flow requirements of the entire riverine ecosystem, based on explicit links between changes in flow regime and the consequences for the biophysical environment. Recent advancements include the consideration of ecosystem-dependent livelihoods and a benchmarking process suitable for evaluating alternative water resource developments at basin scale, in relatively poorly known systems. Although centred in Australia and South Africa, holistic methodologies have stimulated considerable interest elsewhere. They may be especially appropriate in developing world regions, where environmental flow research is in its infancy and water allocations for ecosystems must, for the time being at least, be based on scant data, best professional judgement and risk assessment. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.