Q&A: Water Governance

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Water Governance - What does it mean?

An operational and implementable, universally-agreed definition of water governance still has to be agreed upon.

Despite becoming a popular and widely-used term in the post-2000 era, there is still no accepted definition of the water governance concept, or indeed on how good governance in the water sector can be achieved. However, there appears to be an increasing recognition of the importance of adding more voices, responsibilities, transparency and accountability to the formal and informal organisations associated with water management as a whole; not only the governments, but also the private sector, non-governmental organisations, and all other Civil Society related groups. Interestingly, an extensive literature review suggests old concepts and terms are being re-used and recycled under the new and trendy label of governance. An objective analysis of definitions composed by international organisations, clearly reveals the wide-ranging scope of existing interpretations and definitions:

UNDP [1] and Global Water Partnership [2] define water governance as a “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”. Thus, UNDP notes that governance encompasses political, economic and social processes and institutions through which governments, Civil Society and the private sector make decisions about how best to use, develop and manage water resources. It further considers that “adequate governance can decrease political and social risks, as well as institutional failures and rigidity. It can also improve capacities to cope with shared problems.” [3].

In comparison, The Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia of the United Nations (ESCWA), also includes issues such as participation, transparency, equity and accountability in its discussion on governance-related issues.

Most widely used definition

Most commonly, water governance is defined as follows (or some variation of the following):

'Water governance can be defined as the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems that are in place to regulate the development and management of water resources and provision of water services at different levels of society'.

In general, the notion of water governance is concerned with the functions, balances and structures internal to the water sector and includes the ability to design policies and institutional frameworks that are socially acceptable to mobilize resources in support of them. It is concerned with those political, social and economic organisation and institutions that are necessary for water development and management. However, this still remains rather vague, and governance cannot mean all things to all people. What is missing in the discussion on water governance is the type of strategies that need be formulated to implement adequate governance in more realistic terms, as opposed to more generalised statements requiring “changes in attitudes and behaviour among individuals, institutions, professionals, decision-makers; in short, among all involved.”[4] Unless the water profession can define a functional and implementable concept of governance, its popularity is likely to be only transitory.

What are the fundamental requirements for good water governance?

  • Combined commitment: Effective governance of water resources and water service delivery requires the combined commitment of government and various groups in civil society, particularly at local/community levels, together with the private sector.
  • Ethical issues - transparency, equity and fairness are fundamental requirements. All policy decisions should be transparent so that both insiders and outsiders can easily follow the steps taken in policy formulation especially with regard to financial transactions. Equity between and among the various interest groups, stakeholders and consumers needs to be carefully monitored throughout the process of policy development and implementation. Good water governance is also based on the rule of law, which manifests itself most strongly in the issue of justice, property rights for use, access and ownership of water.
  • Responsibility and accountability: Each institution must know and take responsibility for what it does. The “rules of the game” need to be explicit and should have an in-built arbitration enforcing mechanism to ensure that satisfactory solutions can still be reached when seemingly irreconcilable conflicts arise among the stakeholders. In terms of responsiveness (and sustainability) an effective and reliable governance system must deliver what is needed on the basis of demand, clear objectives, an evaluation of future impact and, where available, past experiences. Policies should also be incentive-based.
  • Inclusiveness, participation, predictability and responsiveness: [5] Decision-making and implementation must be inclusive and communicative with government,civil society and the private sector each having clear roles to play with shared responsibilities on the basis of public-private partnerships. Improved participation is likely to create more confidence in the end result and in the institutions that deliver policies. The governance system becomes a poor and ineffective one when it does not fulfill these conditions, which in turn leads to increased political and social risks, institutional failure and rigidity and a deterioration in the capacity to cope with shared problems instead of facilitating action on and enhancing the development of water resources and water delivery services.
  • Coherence: Policies and actions must also be coherent. Coherence requires political leadership and a strong responsibility on the part of the institutions at different levels to ensure a consistent approach within a complex system.

Who created the term and why?

What is the history of Water Governance?

At the local level

At the local sclae, water governance has a very long history going back at least five thousand years. Water has been managed by local communities, ancient civilizations (e.g. Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indus), and through various religions (e.g. Hinduism, Islam). Water governance differs from place to place in relation to the specific historical, cultural and hydrological aspects of specific regions.

At the global level

Comparatively, water governance at the global level is a relatively new phenomenon. Internationally, several hundred treaties between countries regulating water use have existed over the last five centuries, but water governance at the global level only truly materialised in the last five decades. One can argue that there are three trends in global water governance today. There is the slow, bottom up cumulative process of customs leading to legal rules worldwide; the top down process of science driven governance ideas coming from the international policy communities; and the diagonal influence of globalisation via trade and investment regimes.

Global water governance today and in the future

The key feature of global water governance today is that it is highly diffuse. Too many UN agencies are involved in water governance and no one had been able to take the lead in water policy. Efforts in the legal sphere within the UN Law Commission remained confined to legal discussions and even though it ultimately led to the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses - the first global water law, this has hardly been ratified by UN member states and as of January 2009, has not yet entered into force. The inability of UN bodies to take a lead in water governance led a number of different actors to play critical roles in the global arena on this issue area. These include the World Water Forum, water NGOs such as the Global Water Partnership, and the World Water Council. The rise of these networks and bodies forced the 23 UN agencies working on water to collaborate under the name UN-Water.

The multiple initiatives around the world at global level give no clear indication of how water governance may further develop in this century. It is possible that in the future, UN-Water and the UN water law somehow increase their credibility and promote formal, globalised large-scale water policy. Or given that we continue to live in a world of different speeds, different regions of the world may develop their own formal policy structures such as Europe and South East Asia. Or we may have a number of different actors promoting different types of water governance initiatives all over the world. A last scenario is that if the private sector and non-state actors lose interest in water as a commercial good and if the resources funnelled into water policy decrease that global governance may disintegrate into a few unilateral initiatives. It is too early to say in which direction global water governance may develop.[6]

How does it differ from IWRM?

The Global Water Partnership considers that governance provides the context within which integrated water resources management can be applied, but much of the current programme of GWP is based on the concept of IWRM. It is important to note, that whilst water governance has become an increasingly popular term, it is not equivalent to integrated water resources management, nor is it an alternative for water management.

IWRM was created as a response to an international water governance crisis (post-Rio).

See also IWRM and Water Governance - Striving for "Incentive Compatibility" in the Water Sector

Is there a difference between "Water Governance" and "water management"? If so, what is it?

Water "governance" and "management" appear to be used interchangeably. For example, The Asian Development Bank views water governance “as the means for sound management and involvement of stakeholder participation, transparency and accountability”. It claims that the “global water crisis is in fact a crisis of governance,” when many experts have previously condemned the crisis to be one of water management. So, what is the difference?

It is very subtle, and can be summarised as follows. Water Governance refers to the set of administrative systems operating in the water field, while water management is the carrying out of activities in the water sector to meet specific targets or objectives. Thus, whilst transparency and accountability are part of (good) water governance, delivering water or installing improved water resources are a part of water management. It could be argued that water management, is a more technical and operational term.

For more information see IWRM and Water Governance - Striving for "Incentive Compatibility" in the Water Sector

How does water governance link with human rights issues?

Since the proclamation of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990) by the UN, there has been a growing interest in the recognition of a right to water as well as in defining programmes aimed at guaranteeing the world’s population an adequate supply of water and sanitation. See HRBA2WatGov/background for more information.

The two approaches converge by the fact that many of the fundamental issues of the human rights based approach are the same characteristics as required for good water governance; namely accountability, inclusiveness/participation and equity. Human rights, and not just the right to water have been mainstreamed into water governance projects and programmes (and work in all other UNDP sectors) ever since the call of the Secretary General to mainstream human rights into all the work of the UN in 1997.


  1. UNDESA/UNDP/UNECE, 2003, Governing Water Wisely for Sustainable Development. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affair, United Nations Development Program and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe In: The UN World Water Development Report, Water for People, Water for Life. UNESCO, Paris, pp. 369-384
  2. Rogers, P., and A. W. Hall, 2003, Effective Water Governance. TEC Background Papers No. 7. Global Water Partnership, Stockholm.
  3. UNDP, 2004, Water Governance for Poverty Reduction. Key Issues and the UNDP Response to Millennium Development Goals. United Nations Development Programme, New York
  4. UNDP, 2004, Water Governance for Poverty Reduction. Key Issues and the UNDP Response to Millennium Development Goals. United Nations Development Programme, New York.
  5. 29th WEDC International Conference, Effective Water Governance through the Paradigm of IWRM Emmanuel A. Adeyemo, Nigeria (2003)
  6. Joyeeta Gupta (2008), Professor of Climate Change Policy and Law at the Vrije UniversiteitAmsterdam and of Policy and Law on Water Resources and the Environment at theUNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education at Delft, as part of her speech on Global Water and Climate Governance: Implications for the EU with respect to Developing Countries

See also


2007 UNDP Water Governance Strategy

A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe & CIS

Guidelines for Improved Local Water Governance

IWRM and Water Governance - Striving for "Incentive Compatibility" in the Water Sector

Water Governance

Water Governance Training

Water Governance for Poverty Reduction -Report on Key Issues and UNDP response to Millenium Development Goals

Water Governance in Central Asia

External Resources

Water Governance: What does it mean?

Water Governance for Poverty Reduction

New book launched on Good Water Governance

Effective water governance through the paradigm of IWRM


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