New framework on water governance for practitioners

News Apr 23, 2020

What is water governance? SIWI recently tried to answer that question in the article ‘Unpacking Water Governance: A Framework for Practitioners’, in the open access journal Water.  Despite a growing interest in water governance, there is not enough clarity about the practical meaning of the term or how to work with it. In the article, SIWI experts provide an operational definition of water governance that could help decision-makers become more effective.

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The world’s water resources are increasingly under pressure, with climate change set to exacerbate the challenges ahead. Water governance is often described as a solution, and not addressing it could lead to challenges in water policy implementation. Understanding water governance – ‘what it entails’ and ‘how to apply it in practice’ – therefore becomes crucial. Only with a good understanding of the different components of water governance is it possible to improve water resources management and minimize the impact of shocks and stresses.

Water governance experts from SIWI decided to formulate a framework that would offer practical guidance for decision-makers and practitioners on how action-oriented water governance processes can be meaningfully designed. Ultimately, this should lead to improved water governance.

The authors – Alejandro Jiménez, Panchali Saikia, Ricard Giné, Pilar Avello, James Leten, Birgitta Liss Lymer, Kerry Schneider and Robin Ward – provide many different types of water governance expertise. Drawing on their own experience, as well as expert consultations over the past few years and a literature review, they have tried to identify what water governance really is. In the framework, the term is described through the core components of water governance (functions), what their potential qualities are when performed (attributes), and how they interrelate with the values and aspirations of the different stakeholders to achieve certain outcomes, which ultimately forms the structure of the framework.

Water governance is thus described as a combination of functions, performed with certain attributes, to achieve one or more desired outcomes, all shaped by the values and aspirations of individuals and organizations.

Additionally, the authors present an example showing how this framework can be implemented in practice through a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) diagnostic and planning tool. The WASH Bottleneck Analysis Tool (WASH BAT), was developed by UNICEF, with input from SIWI, to improve the efficiency of the WASH sector, and is based on the water governance functions and attributes defined in the framework. 

The framework will enable water practitioners and policy makers to understand how action-oriented water governance processes can be meaningfully designed, and ultimately how to strengthen water resources management and services. It also provides a fresh insight and guidance for young water professionals, researchers and academicians, by introducing water governance from concept to practice. 

To assess the existing gaps and improve water governance, one must first understand the governance functions and attributes and how they are interrelated, along with how values and aspirations of individuals shape this process.

Water governance functions

Water governance functions is defined as the core activities or processes necessary to develop the sector that are assigned and undertaken by a specific organization (e.g. a ministry or a basin authority).

It is important to consider that there may be both commonalities and differences of activities within each function, across the areas of water and sanitation, water resources or transboundary waters. There is no pre-defined sequential order of implementation of the functions as it may vary depending on the context. For instance, sector policy and strategy are usually established before proceeding with activities on planning and coordination but there might be cases where the service delivery may still need to function on a daily basis while the policy and legal frameworks are under discussion.

Water governance attributes

Water governance attributes describe how the governance functions are performed. For example, participation is a  key attribute that implies not just mere presence but meaningful and active involvement of a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including vulnerable or marginalized groups in decision making processes.

Another attribute is inclusiveness, recognizing the rights of individuals and groups across different categories, needs and vulnerabilities, and without any kind of discrimination based on race, colour, age, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, language, disability, economic backgrounds or any other conditions of origin. For some of the attributes such as participation, and multi-level governance structures to be effective, they must be in coherence with other attributes such as having accountability mechanisms in place. Accountability refers to the principle whereby elected officials and those that have a responsibility in water services or water resources management account for their actions and answer to those they serve.

Four Orders of Outcomes

  • First: Creation of the enabling conditions for a governance initiative.
  • Second: Behaviour change of resource users and key institutions.
  • Third: Achievement of desired changes in societal and environmental conditions. 
  • Fourth: A resilient social-ecological system where desired conditions are sustained. 

Adapting the Orders of Outcomes framework proposed by Stephen B. Olsen for the governance of source-to-sea systems, the authors explains four ‘orders’ that lead to the ultimate long term goal of sustainable forms of development. Further highlighting that the desired outcomes is interlinked to the performances of the core governance functions and how it is conducted (attributes).

Values and aspirations of stakeholders

The quality and extent of implementation of the functions will be shaped by the values and aspirations of the stakeholders in the governance process, including decision-makers and citizens. Part of this involves raising awareness of the challenges involved and trying to influence people’s behaviour. Frequently cited examples include the efforts to reduce water consumption during the Cape Town water crisis in 2017-18 and the Clean India Mission, often described as the world’s largest toilet-building and behavioural change initiative. Similarly, if stakeholders embrace integrity, i.e. a moral and ethical value of professionalism, honesty and transparency in their governance functioning, corruption in the water sector will lessen.