World Water Day 2007

March 22, 2007.  

Water management, governance, and decentralization


Access to water sufficient in quantity and quality for domestic, agricultural, economic, and cultural requirements is a sine qua non for development in any meaningful sense of the word. Apart from its essential role in supporting healthy, productive, and dignified domestic living conditions, water is the factor that determines agricultural productivity in many of the world’s most densely populated regions. It therefore directly influences the energy sector via hydropower generation and power demand for pumping and it also protects and promotes ecosystem health and biodiversity. Transdisciplinary research on water in its physical, ecological, socio-economic, political, and legal contexts is thus integral to ZEF’s research agenda.


The livelihoods of roughly 70% of the World’s poor are tied closely to agriculture, and irrigation development has been demonstrated clearly to increase employment and income and to reduce the price of food. The negative impacts of irrigation development on the physical environment are equally well documented. It also has been estimated that reductions in irrigation water use relative to present levels will be required to maintain ecosystems health globally.


Efforts to reconcile poverty alleviation and ecological sustainability will require a way of managing water resources that takes full account of the value of water in supporting ecosystem functioning. But it must also acknowledge the complex system of rights and entitlements that underlies the water governance process. Finally, existing technological options represent further constraints that will have to be negotiated in the process. The broad objective of ZEF’s water management research agenda is to arrive at integrated approaches. This is done in partnership and collaboration with actors in the “problem sheds” that are the subject of our investigations.


The role of water in contributing to sustainable livelihoods cannot be evaluated apart from the broader context of environmental and social conditions through which water flows. As the hydrological cycle itself imposes a fundamental set of physical constraints to the management, allocation, and governance of water resources, the river basin is increasingly identified as the appropriate spatial framework within which water resources research is conducted. ZEF projects dealing with water issues such as the GLOWA Volta Project in West Africa and the Khorezm Project in Central Asia are examples of this approach.


Development and environment – Conflict or opportunity?


The No Water No Future preparatory document for the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002 states that: “The water crisis is a crisis of governance – not one of scarcity.” The advent of the governance concept reflects an expanded scope of the understanding of water resources management, notably in the field of agricultural water management. This is because, in contrast to management, the governance concept raises questions of allocation, rights, interest groups, and decision-making process in combination – how the rules of the management game are made. As a result of the acceptance of the governance concept a series of policy instruments for enhancing democratic, effective, and efficient development and resources management has been put forward. ZEF engages in these debates through research on actual management and governance practices under different water policy regimes. This is done from a combined socio-political/social justice and a performance/impact perspective, as well as through practical engagement with water policy processes at different levels in its long-term research projects. The main emphasis lies on the comparative analysis of the connections between global, national, and local/everyday water politics and governance across different state and policy regimes.


A new research focus that ZEF seeks to develop in the domain of water governance is the co-evolution of governance arrangements and the physical infrastructure for water use and management. The relationship between governance principles and technological characteristics is intimate, as can be seen in the issue of decentralization. For example, decentralized urban water supply based on water harvesting and conservation employs different technologies than centralized supply systems do. Once the technological and/or institutional choices have been made, path dependencies spanning decades have been created. There are thus strong implications for sustainable development options in the strategic choices regarding governance-technology regimes. A preliminary classification of the socio-technical connections that will be investigated in this research deals with infrastructure and its linkage with property rights, management relations, distribution among resource users, participatory design, knowledge generation, and political control.


The task of reconciling societal and environmental requirements for water is central to ZEF’s research agenda. The approach is based on the integration of physical simulation models of climate, surface and subsurface hydrology and biophysical processes with socio-economic models providing estimates of the demand for freshwater and simulating the mechanisms of governance. Within this integrated approach, an outstanding task of high priority is the development and application of credible methodologies to value ecosystems services, and to estimate environmental flow requirements in ways that allow “trade-offs” between societal and environmental concerns. The prevailing belief, largely unchallenged and rarely examined, is that the trade-off between agricultural productivity and ecological sustainability is inherent. ZEF is well-positioned to contribute to policy-relevant research on agricultural systems that generate positive environmental externalities.


Water Use and Poverty


The social-technical nexus also encompasses questions of linkage between issues of water governance and poverty. Current debate within the international water resources community seeks consensus as to who should secure the provision of water and related services, and by what mechanisms (volumetric tariffs, user fees, quotas, payment in kind …). Arguments range from the desirability of full cost recovery to the need for explicit cross-subsidy based on ability to pay. Framing this debate are technical questions concerning the distribution of benefits from investments within the water sector and political questions concerning the degree to which public water resources investments should serve efficiency “more crop per drop” as distinct from equity (redistribution) objectives. Some evidence suggests that scarcity itself is sufficient to motivate efficient water use. Local governments and other institutions such as water user associations play an important role in creating an institutional environment that encourages farmers to adopt improved technologies. For smallholder irrigators, the capacity to invest in improved irrigation technology and management is limited by knowledge and training as well as financial resources, and the structure of incentives. ZEF research will continue to explore the impacts of alternative incentive structures on the willingness of farmers to include water-saving technologies in their production systems.


This text is an excerpt from ZEF’s Strategy Paper 2007-2017, to be published soon.




Lautze, J., B. Barry and E. Youkhana. 2006. Changing Interfaces in Volta Basin Water Management: Customary, National and Transboundary. ZEF Working Papers Series No. 13.


Youkhana, E., C. Rodgers and O. Korth. 2006. Transboundary Water Management in the Volta Basin. Extended Abstract for the III International Symposium on Transboundary Water Management.