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What is water governance?

In the 1990s, scholars seized on the term ‘governance’ to make better sense of the situation that had arisen in many countries after the 1980s, when ‘big’ government had retreated under the pressure of neo-liberal reformers like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The figure below depicts the ‘shifts in governance’ that have ocurred since then. In essence power and authority from the nation state has been transfered to markets, to civil society, to independent bodies and the courts, and to both higher and lower jurisdictional levels (based on Huitema, 2005).

Some have suggested that the turn from government to ‘governance’ was driven by big business and its desire to weaken the regulatory powers of the nation state (e.g. Swyngedouw 2005). Others offered more prosaic explanations, including the financial crisis of the state in the 1970s and 1980s, and the associated ideological shift towards the market and ‘new public management’ (Pierre and Peters 2000). Whatever the reason, it is clear that some of these shifts in governance have also occurred in the water sector. Huitema and Meijerink (2009), in an overview of major policy changes (‘transitions’) around the world, note that many countries have moved towards greater levels of market involvement (privatization of water services), greater levels of civil society involvement (water user associations, more public participation), and more independent bodies (such as river basin committees). There is also a clear movement towards greater levels of international involvement, with the number of transboundary water agreements increasing, and the growing influence of organizations like the European Union, World Bank and Asian Development Bank. For an overview of some of the transitions analyzed by Huitema and Meijerink (2009), see below.


Australia Environmental water allocation, ground water regulation in the south of the Murray-Darling basin
China River restoration, ecosystem-based water river management in the Yangtze basin
European Union Marketization, participatory governance
Germany Space for the river, flood risk management
Hungary River restoration, ecosystem-based water management in the Tisza basin
India Participatory irrigation management (PIM) in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Harjana
Indonesia Decentralization, participatory governance (water user associations)
Mexico Privatization (creation of water markets, introduction of water pricing), decentralization, introduction of participatory governance (establishment of water user associations)
The Netherlands Transition from hydraulic paradigm (construction of dams and dikes) to space for the river and river restoration in the Eastern Scheldt and the main rivers area
Spain Sustainable alternatives to supply- based management in the Ebro basin
South Africa Transition from extraction and pollution of mining water to pollution prevention in the Orange river basin
Sweden Adaptive management in Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere reserve, nation-wide introduction of the European Water Framework Directive
Tanzania National introduction of privatization, decentralization, introduction of participatory governance
Thailand All year around irrigation, securing supplies to urban users,  the management of multiple services in the Upper Ping basin
Turkey National discussion about the liberalization of hydropower, decentralization of irrigation
United States Transition from single purpose to integrated water resources management in the California Bay-Delta and Colorado’s San Luis Valley

What attracts scientists to the term ‘governance’ is its ability to ‘cover the whole range of institutions and relationships involved in the process of governing’ (Pierre and Peters 2000: 1). Clearly, ‘governance’ is not the same as government: while government centers on the institutions and actions of the state, the term governance allows non-state actors such as businesses and civil society to be brought into an analysis of societal steering. When we study governance, we are interested in ‘the totality of interactions, in which public as well as private actors participate, aimed at solving societal problems or creating societal opportunities; attending to the institutions as contexts for these governing interactions; and establishing a normative foundation for all those activities’. With this blog we aim to further discussions on water governance. Applying the term as just defined, this means we are interested in the efforts by private and public actors to steer, control, or manage water (be it ground water or surface water), but also in the institutions they found to take up this task, and the normative underpinnings of these efforts and institutions. There are many problems to be addressed in the field of water management, not the least of which water scarcity (see map below from the BBC website). The map shows how large parts of the world are approaching water scarcity, but also that this scarcity is not the same everywhere. Whereas in some countries it is simply a matter of water running out, in others it is more an issue of water prices that make available water inaccessible to some.

When it comes to developing institutions to respond to water issues, societies have several different basic chocies to make. One key choice is to decide whether to entrust responsibilities to governments (the public sector), to companies (private sector), or to depend on self-provision and self-regulation (civil society) (Dicke and Meijerink 2008).  Obviously,  combinations of these three basic forms of institutions are possible and probably even necessary. It is increasingly clear that governments cannot provide for water on their own, but also that markets do not operate effectively without government oversight, and that self-regulation ad self-provision also require a certain legitimate authority to back them up. The figure below for instance (based on Bouwer et al. 2007) shows how public and private responsibilities for flood insurance are divided in Europe.

We are also interested in the normative underpinnings of efforts to manage water and institutions building. Various criteria can be applied to evaluate governance, including effectiveness, efficiency, legitimacy, legality, coordination, etc. The shifts in governance that have taken place over the past few decades have indeed not gone without consequences. Authors such as Chris Skelcher note how the various shifts in governance have affected the ‘ jurisdictional integrity’ of the nation state. This in itself is not something to worry about, however it is noticeable that the norms that apply to the nation state, especially in developed democracies, imply certain guarantees (about transparency, democratic procedure) that need not apply to other levels of government, or the private sector and civil society. There is thus potentially a loss of democratic control associated with these shifts in governance, and this needs active monitoring and perhaps mending. And, in a situation where responsibility for the provision of collective goods is shared, it may not always be so easy to determine who does what, and who is responsible for what. This implies a certain risk for issues falling between the cracks and a risk of inefficiencies. It is also increasingly clear that shifting water tasks to the private sector can have effects on equity in societies.

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  1. Simon Verduijn

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  2. sembeyawo Banda

    wonderful comment but can water governance be supported by those governments that view civil society as a threat , whose primary aim is just to control scarce resources. There is need for more bargaining power for our government to start engaging other state actors in water governance issues otherwise truth is very old than terror

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