Comparative Experience: Water Councils


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Key issues: IWRM Planning | National Water and Sanitation Planning | Decentralization of Water Decision Making

Experience and Case Studies:

Other articles:

Performance and Capacity of River Basin Organizations | River Basin Organizations | River basin councils | IWRM - Sustainable Water Governance on the National Level


Background and Significance

Water councils governing the management of water resources can function at different levels, including cross-border, national, provincial and individual river basin level. They can facilitate the coordination of water users and the participation of different sectors in developing and implementing, for example, plans for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

Also there can be different kinds of water councils. For example, the River Basin Organization (RBO) is the official organization (theoretically) in charge of water management, the River basin council (RBC) is a body with broader stakeholder participation, whose task is to advice the RBO in their decisions.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Impact and Learning

Lessons for Replication

  • At the early stages of water sector reform it is often necessary to have a temporary structure to manage and guide the reform process. This is usually found necessary because the powerful ministries with water responsibilities are often reluctant to change without very high level impetus. Inter-ministerial committees, advisory bodies to the President, and multi-stakeholder platforms have served this function. A National Water Council may be formed with this in mind.
  • Also, it is important to clearly define the Council’s intended function, as there is often a blurred line between a non-executive function and an executive function. Consultative bodies may be established informally, whereas bodies expected to have legal powers must be established by law, e.g. Ghana and Kenya.
  • When forming the Council it is important to ensure that it has the necessary structure and support systems to carry out the functions. For example, in Malawi the national Water Resources Board acts as an advisory body to the Minister. As it has no management unit, it can only act as an ad hoc committee and is unable to perform its responsibilities on water resources management. Similarly, River Basin Councils in Mexico have had problems due to inadequate legal structure and there are many other examples where intended results are not achieved because the structures are not matched with the necessary powers or resources.
  • When implementing water reforms for more integrated management of water resources, new structures put in place tend towards more autonomy, with some form of accountability to a multi-stakeholder board or committee. For example, Ghana formed a Water Resources Commission (The Water Resources Commission Act, WRC Act 522 of 1996,) and Kenya a Water Resources Management Authority. When considering its water sector reform Zambia defined the functions to be carried out with a clear legal and institutional framework. The National Water and Sanitation Council (NWASCO), the national body for water and sanitation has been successfully established, but water resources management is yet to be fully addressed.
  • Cap-Net’s experience in Africa has shown that reforming the water sector for improved and more sustainable management of water resources is a long and slow process. Many countries been able to pass new water laws but are struggling with the process of implementing them. The first challenge comes with the institutional reform when existing power bases may be threatened.

Gender considerations

One of the four Dublin Principles of water management states that Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. This must be reflected in institutional arrangements. Formal water management is often male dominated. This is a critical issue, as the way water resources are managed affects men and women differently. The pivotal role of women as providers and users of water and as guardians of the natural environment has seldom been reflected in institutional arrangements for the development and management of water resources. Gendered adaptation to water shortages and climate change.

A crucial element for a successful water governance system is that water users rich and poor, male and female, are able to influence decisions that affect their daily lives. Integrating gender concerns in water decision making is therefore important not only for greater equity but also for greater efficiency. There are some successful, replicable examples in the Arab region for promoting gender equity in decision making. However, more is still needed, particularly in involving women in budgeting and gender analysis of programmes and projects.

Source: National Water Councils: Comparative Experiences Report, UNDP AS SURF, Feb 2007, by M. Bayoumi and I. Abumoghli.

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Resource Guides and Tutorials: Why Gender Matters: A Tutorial for water managers | GWA - Gender and IWRM Resource Guide | UN-Water policy brief on Gender, Water and Sanitation
Featured materials and articles: Gender Disaggregated Data on Water and Sanitation | Gendered adaptation to water shortages and climate change | Gender Guidelines Water Supply and Sanitation | Gender and Water - Securing water for improved rural livelihoods (IFAD) | Gender in Water Management | GWA - Gender and IWRM Resource Guide | Mainstreaming Gender in Water Governance: A Resource Guide
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Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

Basic functions of a Water Council

A review of water councils by the Arab States SURF and UNDP Egypt found that there are some generic and common functions of the different levels of Water Councils as follows:

  • Ensure sustainable use of the resource
  • Formalize the transfer of water allocations
  • Clarify the role of the State in relation to other stakeholders
  • Approve the entitlement and responsibilities of users and water providers
  • Commit government and other financial resources
  • Make decisions on recommended policy, legal and institutional changes
  • Ensure that priority water resource problems and issues can be addressed from multi-agency dimension
  • Ensure that IWRM plans are adopted and coordinated and monitor implementation
  • Ensure that sustainable approaches to water management are included in the national development plans and policy statements of other sectors
  • Ensure that the water vision and objectives are reflected in political aspirations.

As mentioned above, Water Councils may be established at many levels. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) (2004) recommends that a High Level National Ministerial Committee be established including the relevant ministers, preferably under the supervision of the president or the Prime Minister. While the Ministry of Water Resources act as the secretariat for the committee. The proposed Ministries should include Ministries of Water Resources, Public Works, Agriculture, Irrigation, Housing, Environment, and Finance. It is also recommended to include representatives from the private sector and NGOs. Other levels of Water Councils should include heads of local, executive and territorial state authorities as well as representatives of water users.

UNDP involvement in different kinds of water councils

UNDP Yemen – National Water Resources Authority (NWRA)

This is an excellent example of UNDP support to national water resources management authorities.

Yemen is a country facing a major water crisis, where available water resources in this country amount to little more than 150 cubic meter per person each year. This compares with the Middle-East and North Africa average of 1,250 cubic meters, and the worldwide average of 7,500 cubic meters. According to worldwide norms, domestic uses alone require up to 100 cubic meters per person per year, and food self-sufficiency requires 1,000 cubic meters. In this context, the government established a National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) in the mid-nineties, responsible for water resources planning and monitoring, legislation, regulation and public awareness. As in many countries, responsibilities for water resources management were previously spread among several government agencies resulting in "unsustainable management" practices and many conflicting policies. With the establishment of the new Authority, all those units were brought together.

In 1997, UNDP Yemen initiated the five-year Sustainable Water Resources Management Programme (YEM/97/200) to: a) to build the managerial and technical capacity of the NWRA; and b) strengthen the interface between NWRA and line ministries. Funding was provided by the World Bank, the Netherlands Government and UNDP. The Water Branch of UNDESA also provided technical assistance to the government in the establishment of the NWRA, as a result of their technical assistance to Yemen over the last decade, and has also worked on similar projects in various countries of Africa.

UNDP Kazakhstan - National integrated water resources management and water efficiency plan

UNDP has supported the Government with a water resources management project aimed at strengthening the water management organisations within the country and by instituting the practice of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). The government aims to balance supply and demand for water in the country to ensure that future development needs (economic, social and environmental) can be addressed by a national water management programme.

Kazakhstan - National Integrated Water Resources Management and Water Efficiency Plan drafted by the government, represented by the Committee for Water Resources, with support from the UNDP and the Global Water Partnership (GWP). The plan proposes an integrated approach to water management, in which river basins would be managed holistically , through thr establishment of River Basin Councils , with the participation of water user stakeholders and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Stakeholder Participation in River Basin Councils - Kazakhstan

Exhibit from recent UNDP Virtual Knowledge Fair on Water for more information.

Arab Water Council (AWC)

UNDP supported the establishment of the first ever Arab Water Council, the AWC, which is a civil society, not-for-profit, regional organisation dedicated to water issues in the Arab States. Based in Cairo, the Council was formed in 2004 with the mission to promote better understanding and management of the water resources in the Arab States in a multi-disciplinary, non-political, professional and scientific manner; to disseminate knowledge, enhance sharing of experience and information for the rational and comprehensive water resources development of the region for the benefits of its inhabitants.

The Founding Assembly met in Cairo and included some 400 experts, scientists, professionals and individuals with interest in water issues from seventeen countries of the Arab States. They are affiliated with governments, public sector organizations, universities, research centers, private sector firms, NGOs, development funds and international financial institutions, United Nations organizations, and voluntary institutions.

Other (non-UNDP) projects

Kenya – Water Resources Management Authority
A corporate body responsible for water resources management issues in Kenya, functioning under the direction of a Governing Board. The Authority develops principles, guidelines and procedures for the allocation of water resources, assesses and re-assesses water resources potential, receives and determines applications for permits for water use, monitors and enforces conditions attached to the permits, regulates and protects water resources quality from adverse impacts, manages and protects catchment areas, determines charges and fees to be imposed for the use of water from any water source, gathers and maintains information on water resources to publish forecasts, projections and information on water resources and also liaises with other bodies for the improved regulations and management of water resources. It has offices in the catchment areas, known as the ‘Catchment Area Advisory Committees’ whose membership consists of government officials, stakeholders and communities, including Lake Victoria South, Lake Victoria North, Rift Valley, Athi, Tana and Ewaso Nyiro.

Zambia – National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWSSC)
When considering its water sector reform Zambia defined the functions to be carried out. The national body for water and sanitation (National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWSSC) has now been established, although water resources management has not yet been fully addressed.

Vietnam – National Water Resources Council
Viet Nam’s Law on Water Resources and Related Legislation for Implementation of IWRM provides an enabling environment for the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management. The law and related legislation provide innovative examples of the issues that must be considered. In January 1999, Viet Nam enacted its first national Law on Water Resources. The Law is up-to-date in the issues it addresses, dynamic in its approach, and practical. In December 1999, an Implementation Decree was issued by the government which specified that River Basin Planning Management Organizations be established in the Red River and Mekong River Basins (the Dong Nai River Basin has been added to this list). The Decree also specified the functions of a national apex council to help manage water resources. The National Water Resources Council advises Government on certain issues of water governance including national and international water policies. Additionally, the National Water Resources Council is responsible for settling water disputes among national-level government agencies and among provinces and cities. Specific issues that the Law addresses are: Water rights; responsibilities of users to protect the water resource and to prevent and overcome any harmful effects of water; the right to benefit from the use of water resources; the development of water resources in areas with difficult socio-economic conditions; the development of a fee-based permit system for wastewater discharge; and the law recognizes that water is an essential element of life. (from the GWP toolbox)

Thailand - Basin Committees (BCs)
Basin Committees are under formation. These have authorities for technical management over water bodies and thus combine features of executive as well as representative authorities on water resources management.
Occupied Palestinian Territories – USAID/World Bank – Improved Water Supply, Water Quality and Water Management
This programme worked with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) on projects to improve access to safe water. For example, in 2005 USAID supported the development of an Integrated Aquifer Management Plan for the PWA, together with a comprehensive water supply system for the Gaza Strip, aimed at helping the PWA deliver high quality water to be distributed to all residents throughout the Gaza Strip and ensure equitable distribution of water from all potential sources. Earlier, in 1999, USAID also helped develop the Draft Water Law, which was submitted to the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Morocco – USAID – Implementing an Integrated Water Resources Management Programme
A new water management regime, based on an integrated and decentralized approach, is now essential in Morocco to prevent years of water shortages that will undermine Morocco’s ability to achieve its full development potential. In the Souss-Massa basin, where agriculture uses 90 percent of the available water supply, the need to seek improved water management regimes is imperative. USAID has been working with several local partners to establish a River Basin Agency for the Souss-Massa Basin to improve water resources management policies and institutions, implement good management practices, and increase nongovernmental participation in local water resources management.

Romania – USAID – Strengthening Water Users Associations
Water user associations are replacing Romania’s centralized approach to water resources management. USAID has provided funding, technical assistance and training to a project developing and strengthening the associations, which will be a critical component of restructuring the country’s irrigation systems and increasing irrigation efficiency through farmer participation and on-demand water delivery.

Australia – National Water Commission (NWC)
The NWC is responsible for helping to drive national water reform and advising the Prime Minister and State and Territory governments on water issues. The Commission is also responsible for managing the implementation of the National Water Initiative - the blueprint for national water reform. The Commission is an independent statutory body in the Environment and Water Resources portfolio and was established under the Water Commission Act 2004. The Commission is made up of seven Commissioners who are appointed in recognition of their expertise in water resource policies and management, relevant scientific disciplines, public sector governance and administration of natural resource programmes.

Canada – Alberta Water Council
The Council was appointed in May 2004 to provide direction and advice to the government, stakeholders and the public around the province's Water for Life strategy. The Council is a partnership between governments and stakeholders with a vested interest in water issues. Membership consists of representatives of four broad categories including: industry, NGOs, provincial ministries and agencies, and other governments.

United States/Canada – International Joint Commission (IJC)
The IJC is an independent binational organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Its purpose is to help prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions. The Commission is composed of six members; three are appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and approval of the Senate, and three are appointed by the Governor in Council of Canada, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Commissioners follow the Treaty as they try to prevent or resolve disputes and act impartially, in reviewing problems and deciding on issues, rather than representing the views of their respective governments. The Commission has set up more that 20 boards, made up of experts from the United States and Canada, to help it carry out its responsibilities.

Useful Contacts

Tim Hannan, CTA / Manager of SWBM (Shared Water Basin Management) Initiative, Canada

Aslam Chaudhry, Technical adviser on water and environment, UN-DESA, New York

Elie Kodsi, Regional Manager for the Arab States, UNDP Drylands Development Centre


See also

River basin councils

River Basin Organizations

GWP Tool Box on IWRM

UNDP Consolidated Reply for query on Iraq / National Water Councils

A Gender Perspective on Water Resources and Sanitation

Mainstreaming Gender in Water Governance: A Resource Guide

Gender Guidelines Water Supply and Sanitation

GWA - Gender and IWRM Resource Guide

External Resources

ARDI – Irrigation Water Management Assessment and Priorities for Iraq

Cap-Net:Capacity Building for Integrated Water Resources Management

Methodological Guidelines: Establishment of River Basin Councils (RBCs) in Kazakhstan

Apex Bodies: The coordinating eye behind water sector reforms


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