Primer on Designing A National Water Governance Programme


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Water governance is the key to sustainable use of water resources and meeting a country's MDG targets.

This article gives important information on designing a national water governance programme including the key components of a successful water governance programme and examples of actual Water Governance Programmes lead by UNDP or in which UNDP has taken an active participation.

Check also the Resources for Designing A National Water Governance Programme


Current status of Water Governance Programmes in UNDP

The development and formulation of Water Governance Programmes is currently just beginning to take off and there is some confusion about what this concept includes and implies, and in particular how it differs from IWRM strategies and the relationship between Water Governance and IWRM.

A screening of existing and on-going water plans, strategies and programmes at country level, with and without UNDP involvement, reveals a multitude of differing titles and approaches with respect to water programmes. The notion of water governance and its meaning are still evolving and there is no internationally agreed definition. Its political implications are still under discussion

Agenda 21 set a specific target: that by 2000, national action programmes, appropriate institutional structures and legal instruments would be implemented, with water use attaining sustainable patterns. This target remains unfulfilled. A global or regional overview of the current status of formulation of national water policies or water global programmes has yet to be done.

Key resources
The ‘Toolbox’ of the Global Water Partnership provides currently the most comprehensive overview on best practices and water programmes worldwide.

UNDP’s current initiatives and projects

There is a strong interrelationship between water, sustainable development, and poverty reduction. UNDP therefore focuses on the development of policy options, strategies and instruments for integrated water resources management as well as incorporating water issues into frameworks for sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies.

Europe and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)

Below is a selection of projects -- see also the complete national and regional project listings

The UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and CIS has a number of on-going and planned water governance programmes, in particular in Central Asian countries.

On going and future projects


Latin America and the Carribbean (LAC)

  • UNDP Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in collaboration with SURF LAC have documented their most recent experiences in supporting water governance initiatives with their respective governments and are currently in the process of analyzing lessons learned.
  • In addition, UNDP Guatemala has been working on water governance issues with support from the EU focusing on strengthening municipal water management in pilot areas. Guatemala just hosted its first Water Congress in November 2004 with GTZ, EU and Dutch funding.

Arab states

  • An interesting example of UNDP support for water governance is taking place in Yemen, in collaboration with UN DESA and the Government of the Netherlands: a comprehensive project support document for a Sustainable Water Resources Management has recently been finalized. This programme is an interesting example insofar as it is addressing competing water uses and has developed strong cooperative mechanisms to ensure collaboration among different water user groups (i.e. farmers) and includes elaborated monitoring mechanisms (contact: Aslam Chaudhry, UN DESA)
  • UNDP Jordan, during the process of developing and managing the country’s scarce water resources in recent years, has played a particular active role as coordinator of various bilateral and multilateral activities and successfully taken advantage of UNDP’s comparative advantage as policy ‘mediator and broker’. The Jordan Water Action Plan takes into account various international agreements and is embedded into a broader sustainable development agenda taking into consideration the broader political context of water resources management (Contact: Iyad Abumoghli, UNDP EEG).

Designing a water governance programme

There are a number of terms being used in the water sector, from developing National Water Strategies and Plans to Water Governance Programmes and Integrated Water Resources Management Strategies, often with no clear definition regarding content and/or clear indication how they differ from each other.

It is important to emphasize that the development of a Water Governance Programme implies more than the development of an Integrated Water Resources Management Strategy; IWRM is one among a number of important tools of a Water Governance Programme.


UNDP is currently defining Water Governance as follows: “Water Governance refers to the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place to develop and manage water resources and the delivery of water services, at different levels of society”. It comprises the mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which all involved stakeholders, including citizens and interest groups, articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences. Governance of water is understood in its broadest sense as entailing all social, political, and economic organizations and institutions, and their relationships, insofar as these are related to water development and management.

The government's role should be that of activator and facilitator, rather than top-down manager. Important aspects of the government's role include formulating national water policies and legislation, enacting and enforcing the legislation, and encouraging and scrutinizing the private sector. The rules may be formal (codified and legally adopted) or informal (traditionally, locally agreed and non-codified). Although there is no single model for effective water governance, the following basic water governance issues need to be addressed and reflected in water policy, law, institutions and management:

Basic principles such as
  • equity and efficiency in water distribution and allocation
  • water administration based on catchments
  • holistic and integrated management approaches
  • balance between socio-economic uses and uses to maintain ecosystem integrity.
Clarification of the roles of the government, civil society and the private sector and their responsibilities regarding ownership, management and administration of water resources. Issues include
  • Absence of or conflicting water rights legislation
  • Lack of effective mechanisms for inter-sectoral dialogue
  • Lack of economic incentives
  • Fragmentation of water management and administration
  • Lack of mechanism for the participation of the community or other stakeholders
  • The role of women in water management
  • The effects of vested interests
  • The absence of water quantity and quality standards
  • The absence of mechanisms for coordination and conflict resolution
Clarification and implementation of IWRM instruments related to regulations, participation, public-private partnerships, economic instruments and incentives, dispute resolution mechanisms, appropriate technology, and financing. Issues include
  • Inappropriate price regulation and subsidies to resource users and polluters
  • Inappropriate tax incentives and credits
  • Over-regulation or under-regulation
  • Bureaucratic obstacles or inertia and corruption
  • Conflicting regulatory regimes or the absence of regulations
  • Mechanisms to incorporate upstream and downstream externalities (environmental, economic, and social) in water planning processes
  • Mechanisms to resolve disputes

How to start?

Experience suggests that major initial reforms are not essential to catalyzing change - First steps that can easily be implemented are often enough to begin the process of moving towards more sustainable water development and management. In practice, starting with concrete issues can yield better results. According to a GWP's informal survey, countries that have made the most progress towards more integrated and sustainable approaches to water have often started by focusing on specific water challenges associated with development goals.

When beginning the process of designing a Water Governance programme, the following questions should be considered:

  • What changes must happen to achieve agreed-upon goals?
  • Where is change possible given the current social, political, and economic situation?
  • What is the logical sequence for change? What changes need to come first to make other changes possible?

The first step in mobilizing support is often creating awareness. Tactics to activate political will include:

  • Publicize positive water governance examples - ideally examples of where integration is already happening in the country;
  • Adding value: identify "low-hanging fruit"-situations where little investment can yield immediate benefits;
  • Calculating costs of "business as usual": It is also possible to go the opposite route - offering examples of the costs of not having dealt with water governance issues;

Key components of a water governance programme

The key central programme components include strong, effective water legislation, IWRM strategy, thorough assessment of institutional setting and responsibilities and the establishment of effective coordination mechanisms.



Institutional assessment and reform

    • Governance models must fit the prevailing social, economic and cultural particularities of a country, but certain basic principles or attributes are essential.
    • In reforming institutions for better governance, an assessment of existing institutional systems should be carried out first to understand who does what for whom, and to whom they are accountable. An institutional assessment should identify, for example, conflicting laws, duplication or lack of clarity of mandates for different organizations and jurisdiction of different tiers of authority-local, sub-regional, national and, increasingly, international.
    • Determining what to reform and the sequence that reforms should take is critical to the success of the process.
    • Institutional structures vary from country to country, but whatever the specific structure, it is essential to have mechanisms for dialogue and co- ordination to ensure some measure of integration.
    • To some extent, the very process of creating a water governance programme should bring water-related sectors together and begin the process of cementing more formal ties. But it is important that the strategy formulate clear links between decision-making processes in water-related sectors.

Effective co-ordination mechanisms

A key issue is the creation of effective co-ordination mechanisms between different agencies. Fragmented and shared responsibilities are a reality and are always likely to exist. The simple act of putting all water functions within one agency, inter alia, will not necessarily remove conflicts of interest, and can result in the loss of transparency.


Coordination mechanisms:

Could consist of a range of entities such as high-level steering groups within national governments, inter-agency task forces (for specific purposes, e.g. water pollution control), and international consortia for the management of water resources. The creation of coordination mechanisms can free water allocation decisions from being driven solely by sectoral interests, enabling more strategic allocation. Putting together i.e. an inter-ministerial steering group-preferably supported by a management team of qualified professionals-can help create joint ownership of the strategy across sectors and help enact the reforms adopted.

Experience with GEF-supported programs to test integrated land and water resources management processes in a number of river basins around the world, for example, suggests that national inter-ministerial committees can play active roles in these processes, not simply approving finished plans and strategies but in fact taking a role in steering the process.

Because the steering committee does play such an important role in the success of a strategy, choice of members needs to weigh both level of influence and commitment to the process. The same steering group might also monitor implementation progress and be held to account to a higher authority. A high-quality management team should be identified early in the formulation process.

Lessons learnt in establishing coordination mechanisms
  • Successful experience to date in establishing robust and respected coordination mechanisms is limited.
  • Establishment of a successful coordinating body can be a slow process, since it takes time for a new body to achieve legitimacy.
  • The effectiveness of a coordination mechanisms is linked to the specific political and historical context.
  • For coordination mechanisms to function effectively, all the stakeholders who are involved in the functions under its jurisdiction need to develop commitment to ensure it has appropriate powers. Conflict management and awareness raising techniques are important here.

Stakeholder participation:

Organizing a wide range of forums-informal meetings, workshops, consultation processes, public meetings, focus group interviews, policy dialogues, round tables, and media events-can help different groups meaningfully contribute to the strategic development process.

UNDP, together with GWP (Global Water Partnership) and ICLEI (The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), supports regional and national “round tables” as well as programme development through its Governance Dialogues to improve national and local water governance and IWRM.

River basin organizations:

For achieving integrated management across sectors, and state and national boundaries River basin organizations, if successful, can ensure integrated management across sectoral and administrative lines. Basin organizations provide a mechanism for ensuring that land use and needs are reflected in water management-and vice versa. Their functions range from water allocation, resource management and planning; to education of basin communities; to developing natural resources management strategies and programs of remediation of degraded lands and waterways. They may also play a role in consensus building, facilitation, and conflict management.

Lessons learned of effective river basin management organizations
  • An ability to establish trusted technical competencies;
  • A focus on serious recurrent problems such as flooding or drought or supply shortages, and the provision of solutions acceptable to all stakeholders;
  • Broad stakeholder involvement, catering for grassroots participation at a basin-wide level (e.g. through water forums);
  • The capacity to collect fees, and attract grants and/or loans;
  • Clear jurisdictional boundaries and appropriate powers.

Water legislation

The lack of a meaningful, comprehensive, and transparent legal framework is often cited as a cause of poor management in the water sector. It provides a framework for integrated management which determines the way that economic factors relate to water resources, providing the context for private, public, community and individual water activities. Thus, water legislation provides a structure for both conservation and development goals. Water law exists to:

  • Clarify the entitlement and responsibilities of users and water providers;
  • Clarify the role of the state vis-a-vis other stakeholders;
  • Formalise the process of transfer of water allocations;
  • Provide legal status for various water user groups;
  • Ensure sustainability of the resource.

Further Readings - References - Links

See Resources for Designing A National Water Governance Programme


UNDP consolidated reply on water governance
See also Resources_for_Designing_A_National_Water_Governance_Programme

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