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New borderlands of water governance must transcend traditional boundaries

We need to rethink the old boundaries of water governance. Traditional units of governance in water management are spatial or biogeographical, watersheds, basins or catchments. Watersheds transcend political, cultural and national boundaries, but their governance is stuck in administrative settings that reflect small-scale national priorities. Those affected directly by water decision-making are left out, along with their environmental concerns.

Alison Dyke, Leonie Pearson / Published on 25 August 2021

Recognizing that water governance should involve the people affected by the decisions, these administrative boundaries bring challenges in managing a watershed as a unit when waterways cross boundaries. Political or strategic goals may differ for each region or country, such as providing for local agricultural livelihoods versus providing energy for urban areas far away, and when a single watershed occupies different spheres of influence, power relations shift.

In the Water Beyond Boundaries Initiative, SEI is tackling these boundary issues in water governance and the challenges that they pose to decision-making.

There are three boundary issues arising in water governance:

  • the spatial transfer of water both physically and across watershed boundaries, such as water embodied in the goods and services produced by a watershed like rice or coffee;
  • the inclusion of ecosystem needs and functions in water management; and
  • the needs of locals who use and value the water along with national priorities of water use.

Tensions arise when water governance must address all three boundary-crossing issues at once.

Colombian coffee beans

In the Campoalegre River Basin in Colombia, transboundary issues arise from the movement of virtual water across borders in the form of coffee. Photo: Max Geller / Getty Images.

When physical and virtual water crosses spatial boundaries, they also may cross political jurisdictions. Consequently, water decision-making in one area can affect those who live under another government, leaving people without recourse to address their needs with policymakers who do not represent them.

For example, in the Campoalegre River Basin in Colombia and the Nong Han Lake system in northeast Thailand, transboundary issues arise from the movement of virtual water across borders in the form of coffee and rice respectively. This water demand for agricultural products that leaves these regions needs to be balanced against local needs for wild harvested foods, such as fish and plants.

The water needs of local people for wild-harvested foods are particularly vulnerable when competing against the economic dominance of exported goods because they may never appear in the formal economy. This conflict between local needs and national priorities is not reflected in traditional water governance.

Because of this conflict, we need to expand our water governance considerations to account for local and global needs alike. When decision-making is more inclusive, we can help ensure that smaller communities are not left behind.

Water conflicts are not only characterized by a battle across spatial or political boundaries, but a battle of immediate versus long-term needs, as well (Figure 1). Short-, medium- and long-term planning must incorporate the immediate needs of local communities so they are not lost in the big-picture planning of the nation. This time boundary is often absent in water governance decision-making.

For example, the Mekong River highlights water conflicts across time with no mechanism to negotiate short- and long-term water priorities. Upstream national government priorities, such as dams and water retention in China, do not take into consideration day-to-day water requirements for farmers in the downstream countries of Vietnam and Cambodia. Time boundaries can also conflict when applying a human concept of time to ecosystems that operate on a different kind of calendar. While humans extract water for daily needs, agricultural requirements or energy demands, they may be out of sync with the seasonal water level requirements of fish or other species or indeed the requirements of local communities who may rely on foraged food.

Figure 1: Spatial and temporal scales in water governance. Source: SEI.

We propose a three-dimensional framework to analyze the relationships between space and time and decision-making for local needs (Figure 1).

This was used in the Magdalena River Basin in Colombia, where SEI worked with local water managers to explore and then direct water management planning to deliver a more inclusive and shared process (Figure 2). The framework helped ensure an inclusive approach was used in the engagement processes, where previously marginalized groups had been diminished or excluded, such as women of low socio-economic standing.

Figure 2: Sample framework for Magdalena, Colombia. Source: SEI.

Currently, we use this framework to identify opportunities that amplify local input in water decision-making, which fosters inclusive and more effective water governance. We plan to further develop this analysis to move beyond physical water to consider virtual water products, such as rice and coffee, and ecosystem health in water governance.

Developing a more inclusive model for water governance that accounts for space and time can mutually benefit the people and ecosystems that rely on water. In doing so, we create a new borderland of water that transcends traditional boundaries.

To learn more, listen to the World Water Week presentation that unpacks water beyond boundaries.

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