Effective Water Governance: Need of the Hour

Water is identified as the 3rd largest risk in the World Economic Forum Risk Report, 2015. A growing population pressure on finite water resources, coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation, globalisation and trade treaties are resulting in increasing demand for water and upstream-downstream conflicts. Further the physical availability of water does not guarantee a safe and affordable water supply to all.  The latest Global Environment Outlook says that if the present unsustianable trends of water use and management continue, then about 1.8 billion of world population will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity by 2030 and about 60% of world population  could be subject to water stress. The resulting decline in water quantity and quality will be exacerbated by climate change. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, 2014, has established that fresh water resources have the vulnerability to be strongly impacted by climate change with wide-reaching impacts on societies and ecosystems. Due to global waring and associated changes in hydrological cycle on account of changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers, most of the world’s water-stressed areas will get less water, while while flows will become less predictable and more subject to extreme weather events and floods. With its inextricable links to food security, economic development and energy nexus, water scarcity is becoming one of the defining problems of the 21st century.

Water Crisis- A Crisis of Governance

Water is unevenly distributed both spatially and temporally.  It is even more unevenly distributed among different strata of society and among different competing uses. While availability of water is a concern for some countries, at the heart of today’s water crisis lies power, inequity and poverty.  Part of the problem lies in the unique characteristics of water as a public good. Because of its life-sustaining character, water is a basic human need.  But scarcity and competing demands on its use makes water also an economic good.  Water of an acceptable quality is required to maintain ecosystem services and sustain ecosystem integrity.  So water is also an environmentally essential good.  One of the main reasons for the water crisis, according to Vandana Shiva, a well-known India-based water expert, is the commodification of water which has led to increased control on water management by multinational corporations.  The World Bank and IMF have in the past ecouraged many developing countries to privatize water supply in the hope of increased efficiency in its management.  The involvement of profit-oriented MNCs has reduced the involvement of citizens in water management.  With the withdrawl of subsidies, both direct and cross, on the advice of these international financial institutions, the poor have often found themselves shut out from water access due to increased prices, sparking unrest in many parts of the world.  With water use growing at more than twice the growth rate of polulation, the challenge of water management lies in meeting the basic needs of humans, both present and future geneations, needs of the environment, and in ensuring that water of acceptable quality is available for use in agriculture and industry without compromising ecosystems integrity.

Water crisis has aptly been described by the UN as a crisis of governance rather than a physical scarcity of water.  The world’s water problem stem from our failure to meet basic human needs, ineffective or inappropriate institutions and management, and our inability to balance human needs with those of the natural world.  These maladies are rooted in a wasteful use of water characterised by poor management systems, improper economic incentives, under-investment, failure to apply appropriate technology, and an antiquated mindset focussed on developing new supplies to the exclusion of increasing conservation, efficiency, and effective demand management.   Water management is far from being a technical issue involving endeavours to match supply with demand through application of science and technology, rational problem solving approaches with stakeholder involvement, etc.  Water management is about shifting patterns to a contested and scare resource, and is inherently a political issue.

Politics of Water Regimes:

The core business of water management is about coping with variability.  it is related to storing excess water from wet periods to bridge dry periods, protecting low-lying areas from floods, balancing withdrawals between upstream and downstream, and balancing water uses between socio-economic activities and ecological uses.  Hydrological interactions are typified  with commonplace upstream-downstream effect in which down-streamers have to cope with variations in hydrological regimes occurring in the upstream. Socio-political structures shape the way natural resources are used and benefits and risks are distributed.  dominant interests and distribution of decision-making powers get reflected in decisions regarding the management and development of water resources.  through engineering, design, cost-benefit analysis, and through environment impact assessments  and strategic impact assessments, the provision of a public good like water gets intertwined with political and financial interests.  it is not incidental that polluted areas, water-short neighbourhoods and flood-prone localities are co-related with higher levels of poverty and vulnerability.  Paradigmatic example of asymmetries of power in water management is the way cities siphon off water away froma griculture through administrative fief, and rarely through the market, thus imposing externalities on citizens in terms of pollution, flood damage, acquifier depletion, etc.  And industry while siphoning off groundwater without paying market price sucees in shifting costs in terms of pumping stations, falling water tables and water stress to tax payers as a whole.

In an ineffective water governance regime, decision -makers or interest groups manage to frame the water management discourse in favour of certain  interests such that the voice of the impacted weaker sections is limited or unheard sicne they have little access to channels of information.  There is a tendency to depoliticize water management problems by clothing inherently political debates through the use of political technologies using scientific or technical or neutral terms.  But the need of the hour is to acknowledge the political dimension of water development and management, and re-politicize the issue through a re-balance of decision-making and discoursive power towards the empowerment of the community as a whole.

Not and Bolts of  Effective Water  Governance:

Amidst a growing recognition over the last sixty years that technology and infrastructure alone are not sufficient to address persistent water problems, discourse about water governance began to emerge in particular withe the Dublin International Conference on Water & development in 1992.  Early thinking about water governance was based on highly centralised systems emphasizing the role of governments in water management.  Today however the term water governance is used more broadly to describe the political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place, and which directly or indirectly affect the use, development and management of water resources and the delivery of water services to various levels of society.  A governance regime  is a system of formal institutions, water legislations, informal institutions like social norms and customs for water-sharing, as well as actor networks for policy formulation and implementation.  Water governance regimes address, among other things, principles of equity and efficiency in water allocation and distribution, water administration based on catchments, need for integrated mamagement of water, and the need to balance water use for socio-economic activitiers and ecosystems.  They calrify the roles of governments, civil society and the private sector in terms of ownership, management of water resources and water services.  Good governance requires the involvement of the public, and the interests of all stakeholders must be included in the management & development of water resources.

Water governance is important because how societies choose to govern their water resources has great impact on people’s livelihoods and sustainable development of ecosystems.  Socially how water resources and related services are distributed have direct impact on people’s health and livelihoods.  Efficient and equitable use of water resources is critical for poverty alleviation.  At the political level, all water stakeholders and citizens, including marginalised sections like indigenous people, slum-dwellers, small farmers, women, etc should have equal opportunity to influence and monitor water management decisions and their outcomes.  The environment dimension of water governance is critical to ensure that water use takes into account the need to maintain ecosystem services.  As opportunities for increasing water supply decrease in many parts of the world, competition over current supplies increases creating the need for improved water governance.

Water governance decisions are anchored in three levels – government, civil society and the private sector.  Facilitating dynamic interactions among tham and promoting dialogue and partnership is critical for water refors and improving water governance.  It must be noted that water governance depends not only on specific institutions mandated to govern water, but also on the overall governance context of the country.  If the country lacks essential democratic institutions like right to freedom of speech, right to information and right to organize, then participatory approaches to water management will suffer.  Similarly in the face of lack of information about water availability and water quality, people will have little chance to halt environmentally harmful projects or hold governments accountable for ill-governance.  water use and distribution is also affected by facts and circumstances outside the water sector.  For example global markets and trade agreements can affect the choices of crops with serious implications for water demand in the agricultural sector.  Water reforsm must therefore take into account social, economical and political conditions outside the water sector that can have direct or indirect impact on water resources.

Water Reforms around the World:

With slowly emerging changes in the predominant economic development paradigm towards a more balanced approach which recognizes the importance of investment in natural capital and the need to maintain ecosystem services and livelihoods, many countries are moving towards a greener economy.  In the face of increasing pressure on water resources, acute competition for water, declining water quality and a continuing need for improving access to water and sanitation, water reforms have become an imperative need. Climate change has made water resources management more challenging imposing major possibilities of rapid variability and unpredictability of water flows.   Many countries are therefore moving away from the traditional water governance modes dominated by top-down approach topwards bottom-up approaches which harness the knowledge, understanding and expertise of local people.

Water being essentially a local issue, its management requires a plethora of stakeholders at the municipal, basin, national, regional and international levels.  In the face of absence of effective public governance to manage the interdependence across policy areas and between levels of government, water policy-makers face obstacles in effectively formulating and implementing water reforms related to institutional and territorial fragmentation, limited institutional capacity, questionable resource allocation and unclear allocation of roles and responsibilities of different agencies.  Insufficient means for measuring performance contribute to weak accountability and transparency.  Similarly insufficient hydrological data and networks for sharing information poses difficulties specially in transboundary rivers.  The nexus between water, energy, agriculture and environment also present significant challenges for water policy reforms.  Due to silo nature of governmental functioning, policies across water, energy, agriculture and environment are formulated without sufficient consideration of their inter-relationship. For example, as countries confront water resources constraints they turn to energy-intensive solutions like long-haul water and desalination, and when confronted with energy constraints, they resort to water-intensive options like biofuels and steam-cycle power plants.  Institutional arrangements need to be re-engineered to create a greater intersection between policy formulation and implementation across these areas.

Water reforms in many countries have typically included components linked to decentralisation of water decision-making, increasing stakeholder participation, promoting incentives for more and better public-private partnerships, privatization of water delivery/distribution services, community involvement and clarification of isntitutional roles and responsibilities through formal legislation or informal customary law.  Local stakeholder participation has facilitated more informed decision-making, more effective implementation and enhanced conflict-resolution, besides giving voice to relatively powerless groups like subsistence farmers, indigenous people, traditional fishermen, women, etc.  However it must be said that water economies in most developing countries remain largely informal with little interface between users and public institutions.   In some countries, reform efforts have largely focussed on direct regulation and management, over-estimating the capacity of legal provisions to influence water use patterns, while sidelining incentive-based approaches which can deliver better results.

Privitasiation: A Controversial Issue

Although various private enterprises, community based organisations, water-users associations and NGOs can play important roles in partnership with government agencies in better delivery of water services, the privatization of water supply is a particularly controversial issue and bogged in ideological debates.  Since water is such a vital part of the economy and infrastructure, it is not surprising that there has been an enormous push for privatization of water services.  Some privatization programmes have produced positive results, but some have been catastrophies like the case of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when a consortium of private companies led by American corporate Bechtel had to quit the contract due to public unrest, and then file an arbitration case with the International Centre for the Resolution of Investment Disputes for losses of over 25 million dollars. The overall record of water services privatization is therefore not encouraging.  From Argentina to Bolivia and from Philiphines to the US, the conviction that the private sector offers a magic solution for unleasing efficiency and equity neede to accelerate progress towards the goal of ‘water for all’ has proved to be misplaced.  While these failures of private water contracts do not provide evidence that the private sector have no  role to play, they do point the need for greater caution, better regulation and a greater committment to equity in public-private partnerships. Weak or non-existent governmental regulations for the protection of the poor can result in a case of ‘no payment, no supply’. Weak regulations can also result in market-based rules pushing water rights from low-value use to high-value users like industry.  In such cases, the water sector ceases to be a social responsibility, and water changes from being a social good to a mere commercial commodity. The conclusion of the 4th World Water Forum held in Japan in 2006 that governments should have the primary role in providing water access without precluding the role of the private sector in providing some of the services highlights the democratic accountability of the state for the provision of water services.


In conclusion, given the complexities of water use within the society, allocating, developing and managing water resources with equity and sustainability requires that disparate voices with different perceptions of water are heard and respected in decisions regarding its use.  In conflicts ocer water, the dispute is not exclusively or mainly socio-environmental, but also economical, political, cultural and territorial. Therefore the issue of water governance has to encompass all these different dimensions.  Developing effective water governance and management practices grounded in equity and sustainabiluty is indeed one of the challenges of societies in the 21st century.