This report is the first ever analysis of the implementation of the source-to-sea approach. The applicability of this holistic approach is demonstrated and recommendations to accelerate adoption of source-to-sea management are offered.

Traditionally, governance frameworks such as policies and regulations are often fragmented and directed towards maximizing local benefits for individual segments or sectors with no or little consideration on the linkages between land, freshwater, coasts and the ocean. Such governance frameworks often result in actions and outcomes that may not be optimal in producing ecosystem services in interconnected systems.

Source-to-sea management can contribute to overcoming such fragmented land, water and marine management by introducing a more holistic approach that considers environmental, social, and economic linkages across the source-to-sea continuum thereby stimulating coordinated action across sectors and segments for sustainable development outcomes.

This report provides recommendations on source-to-sea implementation based on lessons learned from seven case studies. These recommendations are of value for actors interested in implementing the source-to-sea concept or for those actors that want to augment their ongoing practice with a more holistic management approach from source to sea.

The report is commissioned by the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM) and written by SIWI.


Source-to-sea studies and pilots

The six-step source-to-sea approach was applied in seven cases with a diverse set of contexts at various stages within their implementation. They ranged from desk studies to projects that included field assessments and regular interaction with local stakeholders.

The five studies commissioned by SwAM are:

  • The Bohai and Baltic Seas from a Source-to-Sea Management Perspective (2020)
  • Luga River and Bay in a Source-to-Sea Management Perspective (2020)
  • Source-to-Sea Screening study of pollution and flows in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (HaV, 2019)
  • Source-to-Sea Management of Göta River – Historical Perspective (2021)
  • Source-to-Sea metoden applicerad på material (från båtliv) och biota (fisk) (in English: The Source-to-Sea method applied to materials (from boating) and biota (fish)) (Nordzell et al, 2020) referred to as ‘Three Archipelagos’ in this report.

The two pilots conducted by SIWI in the Foundations for Source-to-Sea Management project are:

  • Piloting the Source-to-Sea Approach in the Lake Hawassa Sub-Basin (SIWI, 2020a)
  • Piloting the Source-to-Sea Approach in the Vu Gia-Thu Bon River Basin (SIWI, 2020b
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A highly flexible approach

An overview of the source-to-sea studies and pilots reveals that the ongoing processes that each study or pilot contributes to is very diverse. This shows how flexible the source-to-sea approach is and how it can be tailored to a specific context and to a varied range of challenges.

Read the overview of the studies and pilots


Challenges across the source-to-sea continuum

A first step in applying the source-to-sea approach is realizing that a source-to-sea challenge is being faced. Such challenges arise when activities in one part of the source-to-sea system alter one or more source-to-sea flows (water sediment, biota, pollution, materials and ecosystem services) in a way that impacts another location in the source-to-sea system, either upstream or downstream of the activity.

Source-to-sea challenges cannot be addressed in isolation where the impact is being felt and must include actions outside the locality, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. Identifying the source-to-sea challenge provides the motivation for initiating the steps of the source-to-sea approach that will lead to coordinated management of the source-to-sea system. Several examples of source-to-sea challenges are identified in the report’s case studies.

Read about the challenges in the studies and pilots


Readiness level

Each regional, national and/or local context will have a different level of readiness for undertaking source-to-sea management. Early stage is typically initial awareness raising of the linkages across the source-to-sea continuum, through to an advanced stage that has full implementation of action plans and cross-sectoral coordination.

Read about determining the readiness level


An analysis of stakeholder readiness levels in each of the studies and pilots shows the specific application of the source-to-sea approach in the different contexts. Based upon this analysis, the potential next steps can be devised, towards the full implementation of source-to-sea management in each of the locations. 

Read about the readiness levels of the studies and pilots


The four orders of outcome relate to specific stakeholder categories

The Bohai-Baltic Seas study developed a theory of change for each of the priority flows, in each basin. An interesting finding that came out of the exercise was how specific stakeholder categories relate to different orders of outcome.

Read about the relationship


Understanding the changes to key flows

The need for source-to-sea management emerges in locations facing one or more source-to-sea challenges. Such challenges arise when key source-to-sea flows are altered. These key flows connect land, freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems and activities that alter them in one location can have impacts upstream or downstream of these activities. Awareness of a source-to-sea challenge can surface when those who are being impacted by alterations in a key flow look for the origins of those impacts. 

Understanding how key flows have been altered is a starting point for determining if a source-to-sea challenge is being faced and if source-to-sea management is needed. 

Read about some of the alterations for each key flow


Strengths of the source-to-sea approach

Source-to-sea management considers the entire source-to-sea system – stressing upstream and downstream environmental, social, and economic linkages and stimulating coordination across sectors and segments. The results of the analysis undertaken in the report provides a strong evidence base for the success of implementing the six step source-to-sea approach.

Read about the proven success of the source-to-sea approach


Recommendations to accelerate adoption of source-to-sea management 

The analysis of the seven case studies presented in the report has been useful for understanding the opportunities and challenges for implementing source-to-sea management. It has also provided insights into the strengths and limitations of the six-step source-to-sea approach. While none of the case studies had completed the entire six-steps of the source-to-sea approach or demonstrated measurable benefits to the source-to-sea system from implementing priority actions, the cases do provide sufficient evidence that there is added value in applying the source-to-sea approach to address source-to-sea challenges. 

The in-depth analysis provides the basis for recommendations on next steps toward a broader adoption of source-to-sea management:

Raise awareness of the need for source-to-sea management at all levels of government and catalyse source-to-sea action by mainstreaming source-to-sea thinking in the design and implementation of projects, plans, governance arrangements, and investments. 

  • Stimulate increased investment in better understanding the linkages across the source-to-sea continuum and to safeguard healthy ecosystems and livelihoods dependent upon ecosystem services. 
  • Incentivise, invest in and implement holistic management of land, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems to build the evidence-base demonstrating the benefits of source-to-sea management in addressing development challenges. 
  • Develop capacity in holistic source-to-sea management and establish governance that facilitates cross-sectoral behaviour change, coordination, and upstream-downstream cooperation in identifying solutions at the source.  
  • Innovate transformative, replicable, and scalable solutions that address source-to-sea challenges while enhancing livelihoods, ensuring equity, harnessing collective knowledge and sustaining ecosystems. 

Read more about the recommendations

Interlinkages of the SDGs, relating back to water.

Source-to-sea management supports global policy commitments

The strength of the source-to-sea approach is its ability to home in on priorities that span across the social, economic and environmental dimensions of the broader 2030 Agenda. It can play an important role in ensuring that the linkages between the different goals, and their targets, are considered directly; particularly for SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation; SDG 13: Climate Action; SDG 14: Life Below Water and SDG 15: Life on Land.

Read about how source-to-sea management can support Agenda 2030


The seven case studies presented in this report were the first to apply the source-to-sea approach following the publication of Implementing the source-to-sea approach: A guide for practitioners (Mathews et al., 2019). As such, they have helped to illuminate some key factors related to its implementation. 

The recommendations that came out of the analysis will expand the community of actors engaged in source-to-sea management, whether at the level of awareness raising and advocacy or all the way to being leaders in implementing source-to-sea management. They point to the need to enlarge the pool of knowledge about source-to-sea systems and increase the guidance on applying the source-to-sea approach to diverse issues and settings. Increased commitments to invest in the enabling environment for source-to-sea management as well as to fund source-to-sea projects are called for. Awareness raising, capacity development, and support for taking action on the ground are further essential ingredients to accelerate the benefits received through holistic management from source-to-sea. 

SIWI's source-to-sea programme

SIWI is a leading expert on source-to-sea management, which offers new tools to make societies more sustainable and prosperous.

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