Engaging with the politics of water governance

In this collective post we introduce a new publication by the Water Governance Chair Group

In the last decades the term water governance has increasingly appeared in academic publications, from basically zero in 1980 to more than forty-five thousand articles published on water governance by the year 2016. Since the start of this millennium, water governance also has gained momentum within global policy networks and the narrative of understanding the global water crisis as mainly ‘a crisis of governance’ has become predominant. Water governance seems to have replaced the 1980s-1990s paradigm of integrated water resources management, with ‘good’ water governance’ embraced as a panacea to solve the world’s water shortages and conflicts. This proliferation and popularity of the concept water governance has led to numerous initiatives and even sparked new organizations into being. Our Water Governance Chair Group at IHE Delft, which was established in 2012, is one of them.

The widespread use of the term water governance suggests that there is agreement on its definition. This is erroneous: there exist many different interpretations on what the concept entails, depending on the perspective and context in which it is used. Its predominant use to date, however, has been to normatively prescribe or help design particular institutional, organizational and financial arrangements for making water decisions and regulating water. The scientific foundations for such prescriptive governance recipes often come from ideologically informed speculations about what society or development should be, rather than from in-depth empirical understandings of how water governance actually occurs.

The IHE Water Governance Chair Group is dedicated to fill this void. Our research agenda therefore focuses on detailed empirical descriptions of actual water governance arrangements and processes, using these as the basis for comparatively assessing these against broader goals of development and sustainability. Many of us are particularly interested in and concerned about how governance intersects with wider geometries of power to produce water-based inequities and injustices. We have used the arrival of Margreet Zwarteveen as Professor of the Water Governance Chair Group to further delineate and articulate this research agenda has been further delineated. Her inaugural address of February 2015 is a reflection of this.

 

Conceptualizing water governance from an interdisciplinary perspective

When we received the invitation from the journal WIREs Water to jointly write an opinion article on water governance, we believed this was a perfect opportunity not only to position ourselves in the wider outside world of policymakers and researchers dealing with water, but also to re-engage in an in-depth conversation internally on what we do and why. United in a desire to help make this world a more just place, we work on a wide variety of water questions, ranging from instrumental puzzles about the design of legal or operational arrangements for delivering water services, sharing waters, reducing pollution or mitigating flood risks to more analytical explorations of the entanglements between water and society. Also our disciplinary backgrounds are diverse, ranging from civil engineering, public administration and law to human geography, anthropology and the political sciences. Talking to and understanding each other in our dealings with water forces us to continuously make our own assumptions as explicit as possible, to keep on scrutinizing what we mean when talking about water governance, while also serving as an inspiration for developing a truly interdisciplinary water governance research and action agenda.

As often happens with multi-authored articles, drafting this opinion article took much longer than we promised to the Editors. Our particular challenge was how to do justice to and somehow integrate twenty-four different views and opinions. We had discussions about preferred languages and concepts, as well as about how we want to engage with and theorize change. Almost all involved appreciated these discussions, with the process also helping establish that there is enough that we share and agree upon to form the basis of the article. To produce the final draft, it was key that some people took the lead. They were also the ones to make the final decisions, after the draft had been circulated and commented upon.

We are pleased that in the end we managed to combine our shared experiences and knowledges to produce a joint proposal for ways to strengthen the capacity of the concept of water governance to describe and analyse actual processes of governing water.

Interrogating and engaging with inequities in water distribution

In the article we propose to make distributions – of water, voice and authority, and expertise – the empirical anchor and entry-point of our definition of water governance. We use examples of how this can be done based on our field research. This proposal is particularly informed by our desire to better recognize equity as a distinct and central concern of water governance analyses and debates. In prevailing water policy and governance parlance – with its reliance on metaphors of markets, competition and its emphasis on individual economic rationality when describing human behaviour – equity and justice either appear as after-thoughts, or are simply assumed to synergistically happen alongside or even because of improvements in efficiency or sustainability. We find this disturbing, as declining quantities and qualities of water prompt re-allocations that inevitably favour some uses and users over others. The increased incidence of floods and droughts, or proposed ways to deal with those, likewise affect different groups of people differently. How water-related costs, incomes and risks are distributed is shaped by prevailing institutions and political-economic structures that are often marked by class, religion, gender and ethnicity. Equity, therefore, is at the heart of contemporary water governance concerns. This is why we think it is important to develop a conceptual language that helps interrogating or contesting, rather than simply assuming, the linkages between goals of equity and goals of sustainability or efficiency in water governance.

Since a few weeks the article “Engaging with the politics of water governance” is available online (download full text here). We are very much hoping that it will mark the start of a wider debate about water governance, and look forward to engage in a discussions about the concept with a broader audience of peers, colleagues, students and practitioners. We therefore hope you will enjoy the read and that our article will spark some thoughts and stir some feelings. Please, do send us your feedback – for instance by commenting on this post – and join us in further developing this truly interdisciplinary yet pragmatic research agenda on water governance – with the ultimate aim of either steering governance practices and arrangements in more just directions or challenging unjust water governance orders.


Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum

Jeltsje Sanne Kemerink-Seyoum is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Water Governance at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. She has a combined background in civil engineering and social sciences and engages in research that foregrounds inequities in water distributions.

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1 Response

  1. 02/11/2017

    […] We choose the theme because we wanted the incoming students to appreciate that there are many different ways of studying and knowing water; different forms of water wisdom as well as different types of water experts. We hoped to engage them in critical reflections about the implications of this plurality of water knowledges, for instance by exploring whether and how they can be integrated and combined. Importantly, we also choose this theme to improve student’s sensitivity to some of the hierarchies that are still prevalent in (water) sciences. We felt this, for some controversial, theme is particularly relevant for IHE Delft since so many of our students come all the way from the ‘global South’ to study water in the Netherlands. A more or less implicit idea that Dutch water knowledge is superior to other ways of knowing water, or more generally that the more advanced water science comes from Northern countries, often informs their decision to come and study in the Netherlands. We hoped to open up this idea for questioning. […]

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