Human water security is often achieved with little consideration of environmental consequences and, even when these are acknowledged, the trade-offs between human and environmental water needs are increasing in frequency and amplitude on the increase. The environmental flows concept has continued to evolve in response to these challenges. However, the field is characterized by a limited transferability of insights, due to the prevalence of specific case-study analyses and a lack of research on the governance of environmental flows. Building on recent advances in environmental flow science, water governance and management, we identify a clear need for a more systematic approach to the determination of environmental flow requirements (EFRs) on both the natural and social science fronts and, in particular, on the interaction between social/political and environmental systems. We suggest a framework that details as to how these advances and interactions can be achieved. The framework supports scientific analysis and practical implementation of EFRs involving systematic compilation, sharing and evaluation of experiences from different riverine ecosystems and governance systems around the globe. The concept of ecosystem services is introduced into the framework to raise awareness for the importance of ecosystem functions for the resilience of social-ecological systems, to support negotiation of trade-offs and development of strategies for adaptive implementation. Experience in implementation of environmental flow policies reveals the need for an engaged, transdisciplinary research approach where research is closely linked to implementation initiatives on the ground. We advocate that this is more effective at building the foundations for sustainable water management.