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.

Country   Transition
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.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/about/what-is-water-governance/


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  1. “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 […]”

    While reading the above, the following came up to my mind, and I would be curious to hear your perspective on it:

    Since the nation state is perceived to be (and actually is) losing power to the benefit of the three other governance pillars described in your blog, isn’t the real danger the fact that too much attention is driven away from the nation state to excessively go toward the three other pillars of governance, leaving the nation state not as watched as it should? The nation state is given less legitimacy, yet I believe it remains an important decision-making vehicle, at least in many developed countries. The dispersion of the nation state power and of the attention that citizens give to it might leave the nation state free of moving away from democratic practices without being noticed in the short term (for instance closing deals behind doors with the private sector without consulting citizens since these are concentrated on looking at some other actors). If not done already, it might even bring the notion of ‘citizenship’ itself to lose legitimacy (for instance to the profit of the notion of ‘consumers’). Currently, this is where I see that there could be an even more important loss in democratic control.

    Although it might not be the case for a majority of nations, if I take Canada as a reference, the power that the three other pillars of governance gained was acquired through a democratic social process. For instance, in the last years, citizens have voluntarily (at least, to a certain extent) let the private sector gain more power over the nation state. Maybe this consent has been ‘artificially’ shaped in their unconscious over the last three decades – but this is another topic. In any cases, I believe that today, most citizens are clearly conscious of what they are doing when giving the powers to other pillars than the state. And if citizens deliberately detour the power away from the state toward other actors including themselves, I am pretty confident that they will also make sure that these new actors/powers respect the democratic principles that have driven our societies so far, and this at a level that is at least equal if not higher to the level that was practiced by the nation state previous to the shifts in governance described in your blog.

    Maybe this is also what you were trying to express in your post, but if not, I would highly appreciate if you could clarify what you meant, and if you could tell me what you think of the above interpretation. This topic is so interesting; it is always nice to have the opportunity to make our thoughts evolve through dialogue with passionate people. Therefore, thank you for having created this blog.

    With best regards,

    Kim McGrath
    Water Subject Matter Expert/Consultant
    LL.M. Candidate, Water Governance & Conflict Resolution
    University of Dundee, Scotland

    • Farhad Mukhtarov on March 24, 2011 at 3:13 pm
    • Reply

    Dear Kim,

    Thanks very much for your comment! The issue of democratic deficit as a side-effect of the move from government to governance is indeed very intriguing. Stone and Maxwell (2005) discuss the global knowledge networks as a new form of global governance and mention that along with the informality that they bring to management, there is an issue of accountability and transparency. The same applies to many NGOs and social movements: while they advocate for greater transparency of government, often themselves remain quite closed and are not always required to provide information on their funding sources and the way decisions are taken.

    One may see this as a “legitimacy deficit” indeed. In my paper on legitimacy of global water governance (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/csgr/events/conferences/conference2007/papers/mukhtarov.pdf)I discuss this with regard to Integrated Water Resources Management. Let’s take a few examples of legitimacy gap on the plain of global governance.

    Networks, as a manifestation of governance vis-a-vis government, is a welcomed development in global governance since they are capable of involving dissidents or subaltern players and in the meantime stay stable; networks provide
    possibilities for southern based organizations to influence policy, and networks attract more attention of donors and more research than organizations (Stone and Maxwell 2005).

    Nevertheless, there are several issues about which networks might fall short. First of all the GWG networks might develop a carapace, sometimes in the interests of
    internal network cohesion and unity, but also to exclude those who do not speak the same specialized “language” of IWRM. The experts and policy-makers from the developing
    countries have already not been represented as much as their Western counterparts. These exclusion tendencies can be potentially solved by appealing to the concept of “deliberative discourse” to include researchers and experts from the developing countries to the networks as well.

    On the other hand it is also very important to move beyond the efforts on capacity building in water policy alongside with tailoring the tools for them and encompass the GWG networks management. Witte and Reinicke (2005) for example argue in relation to the United Nations reform that “(t)he sustainability and impact of partnerships depends on the strength of partnership management (i.e. agreement on clear goals and objectives, appropriate risk management, systematic evaluation and impact assessment etc.) and the degree to which partnership feature local ownership”.

    The inquiry into the partnership and network management field should be made to learn lessons for better management of the GWG networks to fill the existent “legitimacy gap”.

    Now, when you look at the national level water governance, or sub-national scale further on, the issue of context becomes relevant. You referred to Canada in your comment, but the extent to which non-state actors matter will depend on the context. Diane Stone has an extensive research on non-state actors in global governance, as well as think-tanks and knowledge actors. There is of course much more on this particular topic, and in my opinion there are 4 important questions we need to ask in terms of water governance at national and global scales:

    1) What is the distributive and legitimacy impacts of the shift from government to governance?

    2) What is the role of knowledge in this shift, and how to be account for knowledge production viewing that multiple ways of knowing are accepted and there is no more “monopoly of knowledge” produced by specialized agencies and expert communities?

    3) What is the role of territoriality in a sense that what is the right scale for managing water, and how to manage this at multiple level?

    4) What is the role of authority vis-a-vis power in terms of management of water and related environmental and social resources; Who is in charge, why and to what effect?

    Would be interesting to see your thought along these lines…

    Warm regards,


    • Kim McGrath on March 31, 2011 at 10:16 am
    • Reply

    Dear Farhad,

    First let me thank you for your reply. I particularly liked how you linked my post – which was more general about governance, back to water and to global water governance (GWG). I can only agree with your comments. Your comment about GWG networks and their “carapace” is particularly interesting. IWRM is a good example in that regard, as discussed in a chapter of Conca (2005).

    The questions you raise at the end of your post are also very stimulating. They are certainly key to current research on governance in general and on water governance in particular. Although I will not try to answer them here, I believe that potential roots of answers can be found once again in Conca (2005), particularly in regard to your three first questions.

    I take the occasion to thank you for your paper on legitimacy and for the other sources cited. I will read these with great interest.

    With kind regards,


  1. […] We, as academics being used to writing scientific journal articles and now running a new blog, could take this as a warning signal to not invest our time in writing blog posts. However, the longer I think about it, the more I become convinced that his story does not completely fit  our blog. We do not write shallow blog posts but we try to provide a platform for serious discussion on a scientifically and societally relevant topic; Water Governance. […]

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