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There is much confusion in the literature regarding the use of the terms scale and levels (Allen & Hoekstra, 1990; Neumann, 2009). They are often used interchangeably, for example the global scale or the global level, and often no attempt is made to define what is meant by either. Gibson et al. (2000 p219) define scale “as the spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure and study objects and processes” and levels are locations along a scale. Cash et al. (2006) further clarify the definition of scale and level diagrammatically, see Figure below from Cash et al. (2006). This figure illustrates a number of different scales (spatial, temporal, jurisdictional, and institutional) and along each scale there are a number of different levels.

IWRM is firmly anchored in the belief that water is best managed based on natural boundaries at a river basin level, allowing the integration of land and water processes as well as upstream-downstream interactions (GWP, 2000). However research has uncovered that this is misinformed, that one cannot link inherently desirable attributes to particular levels of management.

Multilevel governance helps to connect the centralised and decentralised schools of thought and recognizes the necessity of organizations and institutions operating at various levels (e.g. local, regional, state, national, global) with multiple but overlapping mandates.

This network arrangement of organizations and institutions can cooperate to successfully manage common pool resources such as water. Some of these may be initiated to manage specific aspects of natural resource management or may be of a more general nature – where water allocation is part of a bigger portfolio. Each is essentially independent of the other, although some may be nested where the scope of authority is superseded by a higher level, or may form an autonomous network of institutions with overlapping goals and policy objectives (Ostrom, 1996).