Intermediary organizations and participatory river governance in Taiwan

Sue-Ching Jou
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

In the past two decades, participatory approaches in river governance and/or in integrated watershed management have come to the fore in academia and public policy (EC, 2003Ferreyra, 2006; Sneddon & Fox, 2007;  Brown, 2010; Innocenti & Albrito, 2011; Perkins, 2011). In Taiwan, there has been high demand for knowledge on public participation in watershed management since 2006 when the government passed the eight year, NT$116 billion Flood-prone Area Management Plan.  This study aims to identify and classify “intermediary organizations” and to understand their role and effect in facilitating and promoting participatory river governance in Taiwan. To do so, we explored the experiences of civic organizations’ engagement in watershed management by identifying their work as intermediaries between the government and the local community utilizing continuous studies from 2010 to the present.

Intermediary organizations as research object and subject

Medd and Marvin (2007, 2008) define “intermediary organizations” as bodies which are deliberately positioned to act by bridging together, and mediating between, different interests. They are able to weave practices of sustainable water management into and across different contexts, spaces, and boundaries. Such organizations can also translate conflicting viewpoints and promote cooperation.  Their work might involve a complex array of negotiation, (re)presentation, and translation.

Studies of participatory river governance focus primarily on exploring interaction mechanisms and power relations among multiple stakeholders (Sneddon & Fox, 2007; Warner, 2007; Warner & Thomas, 2013). These studies emphasize examining the institutional alignment and design of collaborative mechanisms to promote civic participation. In particular, they focus on exploring formal mechanisms and how they might be used to integrate stakeholders and their actions across different scales. Among these studies, the intermediary relationships between stakeholders have not yet been widely discussed.

The ability of agencies to function as intermediary organizations depends on whether they can mediate the interests of different stakeholders and play the role as translator to promote communication among stakeholders (Moss et al., 2009), so as to mediate conflicting interests. They are not neutral actors, however, and may have their own objectives and agendas. The definition of intermediary is a relational one; it depends on the relationship an organization has with others, rather than the characteristics of a specific organization itself. Medd and Marvin (2007) also indicate that intermediary organizations are formed through adaptive practices and evolutionary engagement. The context and the nature of intermediary space can never be static for the adaptation of a particular organization into its intermediary role (Moss et al., 2009).  Thus, it is necessary to conduct empirical studies to investigate the work and role of intermediary organization in promoting the public participation in river governance in real world settings.

Types and works of intermediary organization

With regard to types of intermediary work in the water sector, Moss et al. (2009) identify four categories of intermediaries:

Table 1. Particular types of intermediary work in the water sector

Type Action
Bridge-builders, mediators, go-betweens, or brokers Facilitating dialogues, resolving conflicts, or building partnerships
Info-mediaries Disseminating information, offering training, and providing technical support
Advocates, lobbyists, campaigners, gatekeepers, or image-makers Lobbying, campaigning, and fighting for particular causes
Commercial pioneers, innovators, and ‘eco-preneurs’ Investing

Source: (Moss et al., 2009)

Case study: The Shuangxi River Watershed

Our research focuses on a case study of the Shuangxi river watershed, located in the outlying Taipei metropolitan area (Figure 1). From 2000 to 2004, the Shuangxi suffered inundation hazards four times, which caused the death of 4 people and flood damage of 300 households. In 2007, the 10th River Management Office and the New Taipei City Government initiated a series of civil emergency measures to regulate the river channel for flood defense. However, instead of preventive flood control measures offered by the water agencies, some local residents and environmental NGOs proposed using an adaptive water governance approach. Through the intervention of various intermediary organizations, not only were some disputed flood prevention works suspended, but the organizations were also instrumental in facilitating the process of participatory community planning.


Figure 1. The location of Shuangxi river watershed

This study distinguishes the intermediary organizations in participatory river governance into three types of engaged organizations based on their attributes and practices in watershed management.  They are: consulting firms, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These three types of organizations can be identified across the spectrum from grassroots and professional organizations, to private companies. These organizations, many of which are actually civic organizations, academic organizations or private companies, are located in the middle and right side of the spectrum (Figure 2), with close connections with the third sector that promotes soft and eco-engineering for sustainable watershed management. They may perform work as “intermediaries” that corresponds to one or more of the following types: 1) watching and monitoring; 2) bridging and partnering; and, 3) networking and platform-building, involved in the implementation of programs and projects of flooding control and water resource management. The role of each type overlaps with the others and their networks can be meticulous and complex.

Enter a caption

Figure 2. Types of intermediary organizations: Spectrums and Networks

Table 2. Types of intermediary organizations and their role in participatory river governance in Taiwan

Type of organization NGO NGO or Consulting firm Think tank
Intermediary role Watching and monitoring:  Performs the function of voluntary organization on environmental monitoring Bridging and partnering:
Performs the function of translators and promoters of decrement of clay engineering.
Networking and platform:
Incorporates different stakeholders to participate and interact with each others.
Activities and mechanisms for public  participation in programs and projects of flooding control and water resource management Participates in public meetings, seminars, symposia, site visit; Provides recommendations for governmental flood control projects

Negotiates with the public sectors; helps to propose local demands and environmental concerns

Introduces media attention

Helps to provide understandable information of water projects to local community

Assists local residents to integrate and organize opinions; Assists local community to negotiate and communicate with water agencies

Finds out the corresponding window in public sectors for local problems

Compiles opinions from the local community and voluntary groups to propose local flood control white paper

Conducts scenario workshops and water forums to get local feedback for flood control projects

Mediates the controversies between flood control measures proposed by water agencies and the river management and education proposed by local community and NGOs.

Effects of intermediary organizations in public participation

We found that in order to promote public participation in river governance or watershed management, the most important function of an intermediary organization is to translate expert and local knowledge, and transfer it to and among organizations for the benefit of different stakeholders (Fisher, 2000; VanTol, 2012; Brown et al., 2013). To judge the effectiveness of intermediary roles in translation is critically important for conflict management, but more so for social learning in participatory river governance (Ison & Watson, 2007; Mostert et al., 2007; Borowski, 2010).

Translation involves the communication of knowledge between different stakeholders, particularly expert knowledge delivered by water agencies and their agents (usually consulting firms) on flood control measures to local residents in legally required public meetings.  Flood control measures proposed by the government, if in conflict with the expectations of local people or environmental groups, need to be translated into more simplistic language to facilitate communication. The water agencies and their agents must do more to integrate local knowledge based on local residents’ long-term experiences of adaptation to the environment. It would benefit the ability of water sector experts and officers in making decisions, as they tend to rely solely on survey data and scientific modeling for the planning and design of flood control structures. Intermediary organizations can play a critical role in this process while the nation-wide flood-prone area management plans are being implemented.

Our research also showed that the process of promoting public participation in river governance by intermediary organizations can facilitate positive experiences for major stakeholders in conflict management and social learning through various activities which are common in participatory planning and deliberative democracy, but are as of yet still largely unfamiliar within Taiwan’s water sector.

Table 3. Activities and effects of participatory river governance

Activities Public meeting Forum Workshop  (in-house) Workshop  (on-site field trip)
Conflict management Encounter / Interaction Dialogue / Communication Negotiation / Solution finding
Social learning Trust and consensus building Empowerment and capacity building Mutual understanding and learning

In terms of conflict management, water agencies in Taiwan tend to announce public works projects to local residents via public meetings without thorough explanation and negotiation, let alone hold public hearing on disputed projects. Even though disputed works projects in the case study area have been successfully suspended, intermediary organizations brought in more interactive events, such as forums and workshops that enhanced dialogue and communication between interested parties for integrated water management. In addition, intermediary organizations have also attempted to introduce soft and eco-engineering-based solutions for flood control, such as floodplain zoning and flood-proof housing, either from international experiences or from local knowledge, in order to solve the problem of frequent flooding that concern local residents and government water agencies the most (Næss et al., 2005).

Intermediary organizations have also helped to build mutual trust and consensus between water agencies and local communities (Borowski, 2010; Pallett & Chilvers, 2012). Rather than focusing solely on issues of flood control, engaged organizations have empowered the community to build local capacity in achieving more integrated watershed management toward local sustainable development through consensus meetings and scenario workshops. These organizations have also tried to persuade the officers of water agencies and their agents not to limit their potential in official duties and traditional training in engineering, subject to the division of labor within state apparatus.


During the past decade, water agencies in Taiwan have transformed themselves from state agencies with little experience in public participation into one with positive practices of public-private partnership in watershed management and flood control. For this achievement, the intermediately organizations have played a very important and significant role in it.

After the implementation of Flood-Prone Area Management of Plan, Taiwan government launched a new watershed governance project – Comprehensive River Basin Management Plan with additional NT$66 billion from 2014. In the new plan, water agencies incorporated mechanisms of public participation and tools of adaptive engineering into the proposed public works and collaborated intensively with selective intermediary organizations. It is worthwhile to examine how stakeholders could co-learn, co-design, and co-produce to achieve the goal of participatory river governance and adaptive management in different spatial and political settings.


Dr. Sue-Ching Jou is Professor of Geography at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan.


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