1. This study summarises our development and application in developing countries of a process for assessing the ecological, social and economic costs and benefits of water-resource developments, as an aid to basin planning.
2. During 15 years of work in Africa and Asia, the process sequentially included the whole river ecosystem and the whole flow regime in the assessment; used a multidisciplinary team and a scenario-based approach that gave equal weighting to the ecological, social, resource-economic and macro-economic costs and benefits of development; quantified or semi-quantified the costs and benefits in data-poor situations, capturing expert opinion and local wisdom as well as data; recognised that the final allocation of water for ecosystem maintenance should be a societal choice of trade-offs between resource protection and development.
3. Flow assessments were increasingly done at the basin rather than project level and introduced the concept and practicality of Development Space as a tool to aid basin planning.
4. Later assessments included valuation of regulating, cultural and provisioning services provided by rivers as part of the cost-benefit analysis.
5. Implementation of managed flows as outlined above is a complex and long-term process that should include a number of major steps, from development of the appropriate legislation to monitoring of management decisions and adaptive management. Country or region-wide implementation at this scale could well take one to two decades, even where the political will and technical skills exist.
6. We conclude by offering eight principles that we believe would promote genuinely sustainable use of rivers.