Since the UN water conference at Mar del Plata in 1977, there have been international debates about how water governance could and should respond to the challenges of sustainable development. New global institutions were established to promote universal norms of governance based on the 1992 ‘Dublin Principles’ and its version of ‘Integrated Water Resource Management’ (IWRM). Many of these prescriptions were contested, not least because of their advocacy of market-based approaches to address what were posed as challenges of scarcity and environmental sustainability.
The paper examines the drivers that have informed different conceptualisations of water governance. It shows how ‘scarcity’ has become central to narratives that sought to focus governance at the river basin scale, to restrict water use in favour of the protection and restoration of water resource ecosystems and to prioritize economic efficiency through market mechanisms. It then reviews the experience of a diverse set of countries, some of which have implemented systemic governance reforms and others whose trajectories have been more evolutionary, driven by domestic contexts.
These practical experiences, supported by a growing understanding of polycentric approaches and how networks cross and link a range of geographic and administrative scales, have given rise to alternatives to the normative IWRM, river basin-focused approaches to water governance. Despite continuing concerns about ‘planetary environmental boundaries’ and transboundary security, these are proving to be weak motivations for adoption of formal global systems of water governance. Instead, new narratives emphasise locally-diverse approaches that see water governed within “problem-sheds” rather than “water-sheds”.
Water governance remains a scene of contestation between local and ‘global’ criteria and developmental and environmental goals. But, in the face of challenges of complexity and diversity and the emerging understanding of network governance, emerging practitioner-oriented guidance is focusing on general principles and explicitly avoiding normative approaches.