The Problems with Water Governance

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There was one issue that arose repeatedly in many of the different sessions I attended and with many of the different professionals I interviewed.  This issue is that water governance is often segmented to small working groups that may or may not communicate with all stakeholders and groups, so the big-picture is often lost.  There are many examples in which this issue arose.

  • How water is defined:
    • Different water laws arise because of the ways in which water is defined.  In the American Clean Water Act, for example, different regulations for water pollution are imposed depending on the type of water: whether it is discharged from a point-source (like factories), from non-point sources (like run-off from farms), whether it is river water, sea water, etc.
    • States and muncipalities also have different rules and views on water.  For example, different rules arise depending on if the water is defined as surface water, rain water, ground water, aquifer water, and so on.  Different rates are also charged based on the ‘type’ of water – storm-water run-off, wastewater, etc.
  • Water governance segmentation:
    • According to the panelists in the “High Level Panel: Global Water Governance,” the United Nations has an agency, UN-Water, that promotes cooperation among the UN agencies responsible for global and regional water initiatives.  This group however, according to the panelists, is further divided into 29 agencies, who apparently do not come together to discuss the big-picture on water problems. The segmentation and bureaucracy prevents integrated approaches to water. In fact, this High Level Panel was scheduled so that various leaders could discuss strategies to improve water governance.  Vicente Andreu, President of Agência Nacional de Águas in Brazil, mentioned how, even though there are so many different agencies on water, water is often lumped together with climate, which leads to even more confusion.
    • City planners divide various governing areas into their own groups.  This means that water issues are often segregated and never discussed cohesively even at more local levels.  For example, the water that is provided for drinking water use is governed separately from treatment of waste water.  These issues are then further separated from other city planning considerations such as public transportation, roadways and energy infrastructure.  According to Washington State Senator Karen Fraser, we would see more efficient use of energy and resources if the city planners worked on the overall picture. This actually extends even to the building level, when sometimes engineers, architects, plumbers and municipal authorities do not work together on integrated designs.
    • Further segmenting the governance sector is the problem that politicians often look to implement legislation that will improve their ratings.  As a result, they often ignore scientific work or use only the findings that help their platform. Water issues are not “sexy,” so they are often left to the wayside.

Because of these issues, the High Level Panel opined “It is necessary to seek a conceptual and operational integration of water initiatives and water management, coupled with measures that can bring institutional capacity-building and autonomy to the UN-Water system.”  Will this World Water Forum succeed in inciting changes in water governance? What are your opinions?

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