Concepts of water governance

As we learnt in Week 1, water security is about managing and distributing the supply of water over time and between places.

This brings the question of water governance to the front of any discussion of water security, both for people and for ecosystems.

Issues of water management are certainly not new. They have been considered by economists, engineers and philosophers over many centuries. Ancient examples of infrastructures for supplying water, including Roman aqueducts and Persian qanats, all involved some degree of water governance. However, they are arguably more important now then ever before.

In this activity, we consider how the concept of water governance has widened to include considerations beyond the simple control and management of water supplies. It’s important to note that we use the term ‘governance’ here rather than government.

This is an important distinction because we must recognise that governance can involve actors outside of national or local government structures.

What does water governance include?

For many, discussions of water governance start with thinking about who manages the collection, storage and distribution of water supplies. This might be a government body, or a water utility (a type of company) working on behalf of government, or a private company, or a collection of individuals securing their own supplies of water.

There is no single model, and all countries (and sometimes even individual towns and cities) have developed particular approaches over many years.

Typical governance considerations will include who should be supplied with water, at what cost (price) and at what quality. Domestic users and business users may face different tariffs (prices), whilst some users might be asked to pay more than others.

Where water is scarce then water governance will include consideration of how water supplies can be maintained over time. In these circumstances, an important governance challenge is how much water individuals should be allowed to use and how much they might be (or feel they are) entitled to.

Should users be limited to how much they can afford and should those who are wealthy be allowed to use as much as they wish? Questions such as this highlight the important social (and political) dimension to water governance. Access to safe and secure water supplies brings important health and economic benefits, which means that water governance is not solely a question of managing the supply of water.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century the concept of water governance has also been extended to recognise the environmental and ecological dimensions more strongly. This expands the agenda of water regulation to include biological and landscape criteria. It also helps to introduce notions of ‘catchment management’ and ‘integrated water resource management’.

These notions emphasise the important role that managing water resources in an integrated manner can play, especially in controlling the quality of water supplies, the management of flooding risk and other important governance agendas. Again, this highlights how water governance is a social and political process, balancing what are often competing interests, rather than being a purely technical or regulatory activity.

An important consideration for water governance is the fact that many important water resources (rivers, lakes and aquifers) cross international borders. This means that actions in one country can have an impact in other countries. Managing these transboundary relationships is rising in significance as pressures on shared water resources increase.

What are the mechanisms for water governance?

The structures and practices of water governance vary widely between countries. Some common dimensions can be identified though. These include tariff structures and billing practices, water quality standards, and obligations for the amount of water to be supplied.

Whilst the legal (rules and regulations) and organisational forms (the bodies that are responsible) that shape governance practices are important, we should also recognise that cultural practices and social norms (accepted standards of behaviour or everyday practices) also play an important role.

Taken as a whole these are commonly described as the prevailing ‘water institutions’. It is this institutional mix that shapes the particular practices of water governance in any one place.

One emerging concept in the field of water governance is that of the ‘social contract’. This promotes the idea that as well as a legal and economic contract between a water user and a supplier, there is an assumed social contract of reciprocal expectations and responsibilities.

This could include the expectation that water will be supplied at a particular quality at all times, or that users will not use too much water during times of drought. Whilst the idea of an actual social contract is more an academic theory at present, it is true that for many water users an assumed social contract exists.

The importance of recognising the institutional dimension to water governance is worth re-emphasising. This is one of the reasons that we have highlighted the term governance rather than government. It also means that any institutional reforms associated with water governance cannot be seen in isolation, but are directly associated with larger agendas of state reconfiguration, socio-economic or political disputes, and dominant values that reflect prevailing power structures.

Water governance is inherently political, but is also shaped by the everyday attitudes and practices of consumers on the ground. The importance of understanding and influencing these social processes is often underestimated.

Water governance is complex and messy

A growing awareness of problems related to water use and management around the world is leading to a renewed interest in the role of water governance. This ranges from local issues, such as river pollution and lack of water supply, through national and transboundary pressures, to global challenges associated with climate change.

This rising concern with the need to better manage water systems is reflected in the daily coverage of the mass media and in the work of academics and research institutions.

The practice of water governance is shaped by the prevailing institutional context and unfolds through a series of interlinked geographical ‘domains’, from everyday matters and sovereign state policies to transboundary and global politics.

This is because the institutions governing our use and supply of water are often subjective, dependent on the inherited legacy of the past, and nested in spatially hierarchical arrangements – from the local through to the international – which do not easily align to the geography of water resources.

Over recent decades our understanding and recognition of water interdependencies have also grown. This has led to more comprehensive approaches to water governance that seek to integrate social, economic and environmental concerns.

In the following activity we introduce some examples of more integrated approaches to water governance.

In the next step we’ll discuss what you expect from your local authorities and water suppliers in terms of water provision and water usage.


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This article is from the free online course:

The Challenge of Global Water Security

Cardiff University

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