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Global Climate Change and the Reallocation of Water  

Rhett B. Larson

Increased water variability is one of the most pressing challenges presented by global climate change. A warmer atmosphere will hold more water and will result in more frequent and more intense El Niño events. Domestic and international water rights regimes must adapt to the more extreme drought and flood cycles resulting from these phenomena. Laws that allocate rights to water, both at the domestic level between water users and at the international level between nations sharing transboundary water sources, are frequently rigid governance systems ill-suited to adapt to a changing climate. Often, water laws allocate a fixed quantity of water for a certain type of use. At the domestic level, such rights may be considered legally protected private property rights or guaranteed human rights. At the international level, such water allocation regimes may also be dictated by human rights, as well as concerns for national sovereignty. These legal considerations may ossify water governance and inhibit water managers’ abilities to alter water allocations in response to changing water supplies. To respond to water variability arising from climate change, such laws must be reformed or reinterpreted to enhance their adaptive capacity. Such adaptation should consider both intra-generational equity and inter-generational equity. One potential approach to reinterpreting such water rights regimes is a stronger emphasis on the public trust doctrine. In many nations, water is a public trust resource, owned by the state and held in trust for the benefit of all citizens. Rights to water under this doctrine are merely usufructuary—a right to make a limited use of a specified quantity of water subject to governmental approval. The recognition and enforcement of the fiduciary obligation of water governance institutions to equitably manage the resource, and characterization of water rights as usufructuary, could introduce needed adaptive capacity into domestic water allocation laws. The public trust doctrine has been influential even at the international level, and that influence could be enhanced by recognizing a comparable fiduciary obligation for inter-jurisdictional institutions governing international transboundary waters. Legal reforms to facilitate water markets may also introduce greater adaptive capacity into otherwise rigid water allocation regimes. Water markets are frequently inefficient for several reasons, including lack of clarity in water rights, externalities inherent in a resource that ignores political boundaries, high transaction costs arising from differing economic and cultural valuations of water, and limited competition when water utilities are frequently natural monopolies. Legal reforms that clarify property rights in water, specify the minimum quantity, quality, and affordability of water to meet basic human needs and environmental flows, and mandate participatory and transparent water pricing and contracting could allow greater flexibility in water allocations through more efficient and equitable water markets.

Article

Water User Associations and Collective Action in Irrigation and Drainage  

Bryan Bruns

If there is too little or too much water, farmers may be able to work together to control water and grow more food. Even before the rise of cities and states, people living in ancient settlements cooperated to create better growing conditions for useful plants and animals by diverting, retaining, or draining water. Local collective action by farmers continued to play a major role in managing water for agriculture, including in later times and places when rulers sometimes also organized construction of dams, dikes, and canals. Comparative research on long-lasting irrigation communities and local governance of natural resources has found immense diversity in management rules tailored to the variety of local conditions. Within this diversity, Elinor Ostrom identified shared principles of institutional design: clear social and physical boundaries; fit between rules and local conditions, including proportionality in sharing costs and benefits; user participation in modifying rules; monitoring by users or those accountable to them; graduated sanctions to enforce rules; low-cost conflict resolution; government tolerance or support for self-governance; and nested organizations. During the 19th and 20th centuries, centralized bureaucracies constructed many large irrigation schemes. Farmers were typically expected to handle local operation and maintenance and comply with centralized management. Postcolonial international development finance for irrigation and drainage systems usually flowed through national bureaucracies, strengthening top-down control of infrastructure and water management. Pilot projects in the 1970s in the Philippines and Sri Lanka inspired internationally funded efforts to promote participatory irrigation management in many countries. More ambitious reforms for transfer of irrigation management to water user associations (WUAs) drew on examples in Colombia, Mexico, Turkey, and elsewhere. These reforms have shown the feasibility in some cases of changing policies and practices to involve irrigators more closely in decisions about design, construction, and some aspects of operation and maintenance, including cooperation in scheme-level co-management. However, WUAs and associated institutional reforms are clearly not panaceas and have diverse results depending on context and on contingencies of implementation. Areas of mixed or limited impact and for potential improvement include performance in delivering water; maintaining infrastructure; mobilizing local resources; sustaining organizations after project interventions; and enhancing social inclusion and equity in terms of multiple uses of water, gender, age, ethnicity, poverty, land tenure, and other social differences. Cooperation in managing water for agriculture can contribute to coping with present and future challenges, including growing more food to meet rising demand; competition for water between agriculture, industry, cities, and the environment; increasing drought, flood, and temperatures due to climate change; social and economic shifts in rural areas, including outmigration and diversification of livelihoods; and the pursuit of environmental sustainability.

Article

Water Governance in the Netherlands  

M.L. (Marie Louise) Blankesteijn and W.D. (Wieke) Pot

Dutch water governance is world famous. It to a large extent determines the global public image of the Netherlands, with its windmills, polders, dikes and dams, and the eternal fight against the water, symbolized by the engineering marvel of the Delta Works. Dutch water governance has a history that dates back to the 11th century. Since the last 200 years, water governance has, however, undergone significant changes. Important historical events setting in motion longer-term developments for Dutch water governance were the Napoleonic rule, land reclamation projects, the Big Flood of 1953, the Afsluitdijk, the impoldering of the former Southern Sea, the ecological turn in water management, and the more integrated approach of “living with water.” In the current anthropocentric age, climate change presents a key challenge for Dutch water governance, as a country that for a large part is situated below sea level and is prone to flooding. The existing Dutch water governance system is multilevel, publicly financed, and, compared to many other countries, still relatively decentralized. The responsibilities for water management are shared among the national government and Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, provinces, regional water authorities, and municipalities. Besides these governmental layers, the Delta Commissioner is specifically designed to stimulate a forward-looking view when it comes to water management and climate change. With the Delta Commissioner and Delta Program, the Netherlands aims to become a climate-resilient and water-robust country in 2050. Robustness, adaptation, coordination, integration, and democratization are key ingredients of a future-proof water governance arrangement that can support a climate-resilient Dutch delta. In recent years, the Netherlands already has been confronted with many climate extremes and will need to transform its water management system to better cope with floods but even more so to deal with droughts and sea-levels rising. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change show that more adaptive measures are needed. Such measures also require a stronger coordination between governmental levels, sectors, policies, and infrastructure investments. Furthermore, preparing for the future also requires engagement and integration with other challenges, such as the energy transition, nature conservation, and circular economy. To contribute to sustainability goals related to the energy transition and circular economy, barriers for technical innovation and changes to institutionalized responsibilities will need to be further analyzed and lifted. To govern for the longer term, current democratic institutions may not always be up to the task. Experiments with deliberative forms of democracy and novel ideas to safeguard the interests of future generations are to be further tested and researched to discover their potential for securing a more long-term oriented and integrated approach in water governance.