The challenge of local water governance 1– insights from the Competing for Water programme
Abstract for paper to be presented at the Danida Technical Seminar on Water and Sanitation,
Livingstone, September 29 – October 2, 2009
2Helle Munk Ravnborg and Mikkel Funder September 2009
No matter how abundant water resources are, decisions are made – consciously or not – at all levels of
society about the allocation and conditions of use of water resources as well as about further water
Water governance refers to the way that such decisions are made, i.e. the political, economic, legal and
administrative processes and institutions – formal as well as informal – through which decisions are
made and authority is exercised on the development, allocation and conditions of use of water
resources at all levels of society (Rogers and Hall, 2003; Cleaver and Franks, 2005; Merrey et al.,
2007). Hence, water governance also entails processes and institutions that are not formally designated
Since the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) held in Dublin in 1992,
there has been broad international consensus on the need for integrated water resources management
(IWRM). IWRM aims to ‘ensure the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources by maximising economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability
of vital environmental systems’ (Solanes and Gonzalez-Villareal 1999).
In many countries, the recognition of the need for integrated water resources management has
stimulated efforts to organise water governance according to hydrologically defined boundaries, e.g. as
integrated river basin and catchment based management. Specific river basin or catchment management
organisations have been created and written into legal and administrative frameworks governing water
management not only in Europe and North America but also in many developing countries.
As an example, Nicaragua’s new (2007) national water law envisages the creation of watershed
organisations, charged with the technical, regulatory, administrative and water management
responsibilities. These include mapping and monitoring water resources, the power to propose water-
related legislation and criteria according to which water resources should be allocated and developed,
and organising and the administration of the new national public water rights registry. In addition the
national water law encourages the formation of watershed committees, envisaged as user committees to
1 The Competing for Water programme receives funding through a research grant from the research council of the Danish
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and involves field work in Bolivia, Mali, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Zambia. The programme is
coordinated by Danish Institute for International Studies. 2 This paper is based upon research conducted by Rocio Bustamante, Abdoulaye Cissé, Signe Marie Cold-Ravnkilde,
Vladimir Cossio, Moussa Djiré, Mikkel Funder, Ligia Ivette Gómez, Phuong Le, Carol Mweemba, Imasiku Nyambe, Tania
Paz, Huong Pham, Helle Munk Ravnborg, Roberto Rivas, Thomas Skielboe, Barbara Van Koppen and Nguyen T.B. Yen.
serve as deliberative and consultative mechanisms between users as well as between users, civil society organisations, and the watershed organisations.
Yet, even at the formal level in a hydrologically based water governance set-up such as the one envisaged in the new Nicaraguan water law, significant responsibilities are planned to be performed outside these hydrologically based organisations. These include the power to authorize the use of water 3 provided that the water resource in question is not already used for domestic for small-scale irrigation,
water supply and that only approved agricultural chemical are used. On top of that, numerous incidences of individuals, groups or companies getting together or confronting each other to develop, (re)allocate or regulate the use of water take place everywhere and every month outside the sphere of formal water governance. Sometimes local or external authorities are called upon or claim authority in relations to these incidences, sometimes not. Such authorities include customary local leaders, village governments, project-induced community-based organisations, local lawyers and political leaders. Hitherto, such local level water governance has been largely overlooked, both in attempts to formalize water governance to achieve integrated water resources management and in assignation of resources in support of water governance.
To fully appreciate the challenge to which water governance has to respond, knowledge is needed on the extent and the nature of these incidences where decisions are made – and contested – on water
development and where water is allocated and its use is regulated: who are involved, which issues are at stake, how are they dealt with and what are the societal outcomes? Failure to assess this challenge may jeopardize initiatives taken to ensure more efficient and equitable water governance.
In 2007, the Competing for Water programme set out to systematically assess the extent and nature of water-related conflict and cooperation in five districts in different parts of the world. These districts are Tiraque district in Bolivia, Douentza district in Mali, Condega district in Nicaragua, Con Cuong district in Vietnam and Namwala district in Zambia. Based on the identification and characterization of 1,110 water-related events – cooperative as well as conflictive – this paper presents some of the insights
gained through the work which illustrate the magnitude of the challenge to which efforts to support local water governance have to respond.
3 Small-scale irrigation is defined as less than three hectares or use of less than 3,000 m3 water per month.