Empowering communities for action in catchment management: A head, heart, and hands holistic approach

By The Rivers Trust All-Ireland Director Mark Horton

Matthew Woodard


As the All-Ireland Director of The Rivers Trust, I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation on Empowering Communities for Action in Catchment Management at the Northern Ireland Environment Forum 2024.

The conference, held at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, is a pivotal event in the Northern Ireland environmental calendar. It brought together key stakeholders to discuss our collective vision for the future and share best practices. It also allowed me to champion the work of our local Rivers Trusts and remind the sector about the critical role of people power.

At the core of sustainable environmental management is community involvement, a principle supported by international treaties like the Aarhus Convention and the EU's Water Framework Directive. These frameworks recognise that the best environmental decisions are made with the active participation of those most affected. They guarantee the public's rights to access environmental data, participate in decision-making, and legally challenge decisions that impact their surroundings.

During my presentation, I also emphasised the critical importance of the Water Framework Directive, which has set standards across Europe for maintaining 'good ecological status' in our waters through integrated river basin management plans. This Directive encourages public participation, which is not just about consulting communities but actively involving them in the protection and conservation process.

I explored the relevance of community involvement through the concept of a ‘Ladder of Participation’ introduced by Sherry Arnstein in 1969. This model illustrates varying degrees of citizen engagement, from non-participation to full citizen control, where communities not only offer input but lead the planning and management processes.

My presentation also addressed the challenges and successes in engaging communities in Northern Ireland, especially concerning the freshwater crisis at Lough Neagh which caused near panic in the public in 2023 such was its alarming severity.

Effective community engagement must transcend traditional consultation and move towards true empowerment, where communities lead conservation efforts. At The Rivers Trust, we are committed to empowering communities by providing support, expertise, and resources. We help build local capacity for sustainable water management through projects and funding.

Our approach fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility towards water resources, equipping communities with the knowledge and tools necessary for protecting and enhancing their local environments. We encourage people to build a personal relationship with their rivers, so they care about their health and future

Moreover, we are promoting citizen science initiatives like the Big River Watch, which empowers individuals to contribute to data collection and environmental monitoring. This not only enhances our understanding of river health but also strengthens community ties to their natural habitats.

In conclusion, by fostering inclusive and collaborative relationships and providing the necessary tools for community-driven environmental planning, we are conserving water resources and building resilient ecosystems and communities.

We encourage communities to engage their heads, their hearts, and their hands. This holistic approach is vital for ensuring the long-term health of our rivers and the well-being of all who depend on them. Together, we can achieve our vision of wild, healthy, natural rivers valued by all.

Group of people stood at a conference Man giving presentation on stage
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