Third World Centre for Water Management

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Water Governance

Governance is a term that can be considered to be as old as humankind. From the early 1980s, governance, and increasingly, good governance, have permeated the national and international development discourses. The emergence of governance can be traced at the country level to a disgruntlement with the state-dominated models for economic and social development that were prevalent throughout the socialist bloc and most of the Third World countries in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

With the increasing complexity of the current political, economic, social, environmental and institutional issues which affect all societies, governance is often regarded as an umbrella concept that considers multifaceted processes where the societal goals are pursued with the interactions of all the interested actors in all specific fields of development. The process requires promotion of dialogues in terms of decision-making, and participation of multiple actors. A fundamental issue that is still to be resolved is how this multi-stakeholder participation in any decision-making process can be carried out cost-effectively and in a timely manner so that the results are not only near optimal but also socially acceptable.

It is important to note that governance is not synonymous with government. It is instead a complex process which considers, inter alia, multi-level participation, beyond the state, where decision-making includes not only public institutions, but also private sector, non-governmental organisations, and the society in general. Good governance requires the presence of transparency and accountability from all the concerned parties.

Because of its complexity, good governance does not just appear. It is the culmination of a multi-faceted long-term process that has to be carefully planned and nurtured. For good governance to develop, overall conditions and the general environment must be appropriate, parties concerned should be amenable to collective decision-making, effective and functional organisations need to be developed, and policy, legal and political frameworks should be suitable to the goals that are being pursued.

Governance within the context of water resources management has not been an exception to the overall global trend. An operational and implementable definition of water governance still has to be agreed upon. What now appears to be a fact is that there is 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. These requirements pertain not only to the governments, but also to the private sector, non-governmental organisations, and all other civil-society related groups.

Even though in the field of water management, governance has become a popular concept especially during the post-2000 period, there is still no accepted definition for this concept, or on how good governance can be achieved. In fact, an extensive literature review indicates that same earlier concepts and issues are being used, but under the new and trendy label of governance. Accordingly, at least in the water sector, there is the risk that old wine is being recycled in a new bottle with a label of governance.

For water governance to be a long-lasting strategy or paradigm, not only it needs to be defined specifically in the context of the water sector, but also it is essential that practical steps can be taken to operationalise this definition, which can then be demonstrated as having improved existing water management practices and processes.

In general, it is accepted that ethical issues such as responsibility, accountability, transparency, equity and fairness are fundamental requirements for good governance. However, these issues add to the complexity of the existing unresolved discussions of non-functional water institutions and laws, lack of proper public participation nd overall inefficiency in the water sectors of most developing countries.

What is also missing in the discussion on water governance is the type of strategies that need be formulated to implement adequate governance in more realistic terms other instead of generalised statements like requiring “changes in attitudes and behaviour among individuals, institutions, professionals, decision-makers; in short, among all involved.”

In any discussion related to behaviour and participation of society, a starting point should be to acknowledge the enormous complexity of involving “society” in any decision-making process. The present approach is far too simplistic. Society is often viewed as if it was constituted of a few individuals and/or groups, when in fact it consists of a heterogeneous group of individuals, citizens, organised associations and unorganised communities, many of who have vested interests in the direct outcomes of any process in terms of final decisions. This complexity has been one of the main reasons for the current and past failures to establish dynamic, interactive and objective communication, interaction and cooperation between the various levels of governments and society. It is a major challenge to involve constructively and effectively a broad and diverse group of formal and informal organisations, many of whom may have only limited, or even no interest, in discussing specific water-related issues, irrespective of their overall impacts in improving many indicators of their quality of life.

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