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Does water management pay off? Introducing the DESSIN Ecosystem Services Approach framework

May 18, 2018

The Emscher River in Nordsternpark, a former mining site in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Image: M. Knuth | Flickr Creative Commons

Two new studies on the potential of the ecosystem services approach in strengthening European water management have been published in the Ecosystem Services journal. Both studies were supported by the EU-funded DESSIN project.

The first study provides a practical guide for water managers to assess changes in ecosystem services as a result of different water management measures. Lead author Gerardo Anzaldúa and colleagues outline that innovative solutions to water quality and quantity problems – such as groundwater replenishment and combined sewage treatments – are continually advancing and improving. However, they argue that existing impact assessment methodologies for investigating their impacts are increasingly limited. An ecosystem services approach can help both the assessment and communication of the impacts and benefits of new water management approaches on human lives, the authors argue.

Anzaldúa and colleagues found that whilst there are already ecosystem services (or ESS) assessment frameworks available to help environmental decision-makers and managers, many existing approaches do not adequately link ecosystem changes to ecosystem service provision. In addition, these assessment frameworks are often data intensive, focus on single issues (such as water scarcity) or service types (such as provisioning services), and – importantly – don’t easily link to Water Framework Directive assessments (although, see the 2015 MARS ‘cookbook’ approach to assessment and valuation)

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The DESSIN Ecosystem Service Evaluation Framework – structured guidance for ecosystem service assessment. Image: Anzaldua et al. (2018)

The new DESSIN Ecosystem Services Approach framework outlined in their paper aims to address these gaps and shortfalls. The framework is designed to allow users to evaluate and account for the ecosystem service impacts of new and innovative water management approaches. It is intended to complement the implementation of Water Framework Directive River Basin Management, and incorporates a similar DPSIR approach to adaptive management.

The framework is designed to support local-scale evaluations of ecosystem service provision, which are intended to help make assessments more accessible and useful for both stakeholders and decision-makers, and can be scaled-up to river basin and national scales. You can read the full details of the framework in the open-access study here.


An unrestored (left) and a restored section (right) in Dortmund Aplerbeck in the Emscher catchment. Image: Emschergenossenschaft.

The second paper provides a case study of the DESSIN Ecosystem Services Approach framework in use relating the to the restoration of the Emscher River in Germany. Restoration management to improve the ecological health and status has intensified on the Emscher in recent years, in an effort to reverse decades of water pollution, habitat loss and riverbank alteration.

To assess the values of restoration efforts, Nadine Gerner and colleagues applied the new DESSIN framework to evaluate the provision of regulating (self-purification of water, nursery populations and habitats and natural flood protection) and cultural ecosystem services (aesthetic, recreational and educational values) along stretches of the Emscher.

The research team used economic assessment methods including damage costs avoided, contingent valuation and benefit transfer. They estimated that restoration efforts on the Emscher generated a direct economic impact or market value of over €21 million per year. Market value here means the direct economic benefits to local communities and businesses, such as increased house prices or recreational opportunities.

In addition, they calculated that the non-market value of restoration exceeded €109 million per year. Non-market values includes both willingness to pay and avoided cost calculations and include benefits such as reductions in flooding risk . You can read the full step-by-step application of the DESSIN framework to the Emscher case-study, and the methods and justifications of value calculation in the open-access study here.


Map of the Emscher catchment in Germany. Image: DESSIN

Gerardo Anzaldúa from the Ecologic Institute in Berlin says, “The attractiveness of the Ecosystem Services Approach resides in its potential to enable individuals with diverse backgrounds and interests to communicate in terms of the inherent value they see in nature. This does not refer only to the monetary worth of ecosystems and their outputs, but to the variety of benefits that humans in direct or indirect contact with them perceive. Unfortunately, this wide-ranging character of the approach is at the same time what has made it so elusive to put into practice, as different disciplines have their own set of rules to understand and solve problems.”

“In DESSIN we had the chance to bring together a core group of ecologists, economists, engineers and sociologists under a single common goal: developing a way to run locally relevant and practicable ESS evaluations,” Anzaldúa explains.


Before (left) and after (right) construction of Lake Phoenix and restoration of the Emscher in Dortmund. Image: City of Dortmund / Emschergenossenschaft.

Nadine Gerner from Emschergenossenschaft continues, “In this way, the DESSIN ESS Evaluation Framework was developed on the basis of three case studies where restoration projects and innovative solutions had already been implemented in the past. Therefore, it was possible to compare the status before and after the solutions were implemented. The case studies were distributed throughout Europe in order to cover a broad geographical range with diverse environmental conditions and social dimensions as well as a wide variety of ESS types.”

“Ongoing restoration measures as part of the reconversion of the Emscher River in Germany were evaluated with regard to their impact on ESS provision, use and benefit. Regulation and Maintenance ESS – such as the self-purification capacity, maintaining nursery populations and habitats and flood protection – were evaluated, as well as Cultural ESS describing aesthetic, recreational, educational and existence values.” Gerner says.


An art installation by Tobias Rehberger at Emscherkunst, an exhibition of contemporary environmental art along the banks of the Emscher. The river basin is increasingly a space for recreation and tourism. Image: Reinhard H | Flickr Creative Commons

Read the new open-access papers in full here:

Anzaldua, G., Gerner, N. V., Lago, M., Abhold, K., Hinzmann, M., Beyer, S., Winking, C., Riegels, N., Krogsgaard Jensen, J., Termes, M., Amorós, J., Wencki, K., Strehl, C., Ugarelli, R., Hasenheit, M., Nafo, I., Hernandez, M., Vilanova, E., Damman, S., Brouwer, S., Rouillard, J., Schwesig, D., Birk, S., 2018. Getting into the water with the Ecosystem Services Approach: The DESSIN ESS evaluation framework. Ecosystem Services 30, 318–326.

Gerner, N. V, Nafo, I., Winking, C., Wencki, K., Strehl, C., Wortberg, T., Niemann, A., Anzaldua, G., Lago, M., Birk, S., 2018. Large-scale river restoration pays off: A case study of ecosystem service valuation for the Emscher restoration generation project. Ecosystem Services 30, 327–338.

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