Apoyo Lagoon panorama

Apoyo Lagoon as seen from Mirador de Catarina. Lake Nicaragua, can be seen in the distance. Photo: wellsie82 / Getty

The path to transformative water governance seeks to bring about profound, positive changes in how we manage, use and share water resources. This progressive approach focuses on sustainable and equitable practices to ensure water security, while enhancing the well-being of all stakeholders. By acknowledging the interdependence of water with social, economic and environmental systems, transformative governance actively engages a diverse array of stakeholders – communities, civil society organizations, private sector actors and government agencies – in decision-making processes related to water management. 

The landmark 2023 UN Water Conference , the first global gathering of its kind in over 45 years, served as a critical platform to discuss transformative water governance. The three-day summit united more than 7,000 participants from across the globe and culminated in three significant outcomes: the establishment of a new UN-hosted scientific panel on water, the appointment of a special envoy, and the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, which contains nearly 700 voluntary commitments from various sectors to safeguard “humanity’s most precious global common good”. 

SEI researchers from Asia, Latin America, the United States and Stockholm Headquarters contributed their expertise in areas such as WASH, Water Beyond Boundaries, SIANI and the connection between water, oceans and biodiversity. The conference represented a pivotal moment for global water dialogues and negotiations, providing an opportunity to measure progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 and glean insights from the successes and struggles of stakeholders worldwide.

“For us, it was a unique opportunity to connect the progress achieved together with our national partners in the Water Beyond Boundaries Initiative with global goals as part of the New York and UN Water Conference”

— Marisa Escobar, Director of the Water Program at SEI US.

To further explore and promote the transformative water governance approach, The Water Beyond Boundaries initiative organized two interrelated side events at the conference. The first event delved into innovative strategies for water governance by linking water to macroeconomics, incorporating ecosystems into the discussion and highlighting the importance of multistakeholder participation. The second event centred on disseminating key messages about the transformative water governance agenda.

The conference concluded with six tangible recommendations for water action: 

  1. Moving beyond the local. Water, by its nature, is fluid, yet water governance often finds itself confined to local management strategies. Grant Davis, General Manager of the Sonoma Water Utility in one of California’s main wine-producing regions, argues that regional scales are more apt for action:

“The regional level is a relevant scale for action to account for both water use, impacts from use, as well as ecosystem services.”

The regional perspective is also practical for investment and coordinated action between water and land use, and possibly for improving donor coordination and financing into a system approach, adds David Lymer from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. For example, Rayen Quiroga from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) points out that:

“a Regional Agenda of Action for Water reinforces various treaties, agreements and strategies around water management, and constitutes a call to action to mobilize all the political, technical and financial resources available in and for Latin America and the Caribbean.”

2.     Harnessing the right planning tools. While there is a surplus of promising concepts floating around, the crux of water governance lies in concrete planning mechanisms that bring these ideas to life. Annette Huber-Lee, Senior Scientist at SEI US, emphasized the importance of data in achieving this goal:

“Our objective should be to evaluate the role of water at the level of the macroeconomy, across sectors, and identify opportunities for collective action toward sustainable water resources that enable long-term economic growth.”

These challenges lie not only in the need for more and better data, but in designing methodologies, selecting indicators and identifying mechanisms that capture the multi-faceted nature of transformative governance beyond just precipitation data and climate scenarios. We must systematically include social, economic, ecosystem and cultural indicators into our equations and models. Joy Busolo from the World Bank highlights the importance ofdeveloping tools that connect hydro economic and climate change analysis makes specific climate related policy and investment recommendations that are foundational for our clients.Yet, to do all this, we need robust data, leading us to a third point. 

3.     Making data-driven tradeoff decisions. Without adequate data, making the right investments becomes a challenge. The advent of artificial intelligence and satellite imagery not only presents questions about humanity but presents opportunities.

“If used appropriately, “technologies like machine learning and blockchain have the potential to help democratize water governance through improved spatial data, anonymized socioeconomic data, near real-time monitoring of water operations and citizen participation in water monitoring.”

— SEI Senior Research Fellow, Karina Barquet

Digital literacy and technology transfer is an area where research, bilateral cooperation and private sources of funding could collaborate to improve water operations, especially in regions where technology is lagging. Yet, the framing of water-related information matters, especially when communicating technical knowledge to diverse audiences and contextualizing complex topics such as climate change scenarios with local communities and making sure their voices are heard and incorporated in the water planning processes,Fabián Caicedo from Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development adds.

4.     Prioritizing adaptation and mitigation actions. Without data it is difficult to prioritize, explains Johan Kling from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Agency. Tackling water issues requires understanding the tradeoffs and benefits of different options so we can prioritize where to allocate our resources for current and future mitigation and adaptation.

“Water, energy and food security are intertwined challenges in Central Asia, transcending the borders of the five countries and prioritizing actions in this complex context is necessary for water and economic stability in the region.”

— Gulzada Azhetova, USAID

We cannot do everything everywhere, but we can focus on the areas and interventions that are most effective and where we can get most returns for water, the economy, the environment and society.

5.     Aligning funding with resilience goals. For a transformative agenda to have an impact, funding must align with its goals. We do not need to convince those in the water sector of its importance; instead, we need engagement from the private sector and to bring financial institutions onboard, argues Prof. Dr. Sangam Shrestha, Water and Engineering and Management at the Asian Institute of Technology, “partly to make sure investments are going to the solutions needed to ensure water quality and resilient ecosystems, and partly to ensure that loans involve compliance indicators, for example to account for impacts at the transboundary level.”

But private sector involvement needs clear political decisions showing the way. We also need donors to finance systems rather than pieces of the cake (sectors). But private sector involvement needs clear political decisions showing the way.

6.     Ensuring inclusive participation.

“Inclusion should focus particularly on local and indigenous peoples who are in the frontline, those that are most exposed to all the various crises and who get hit first and hardest when the river goes dry”

— Ms. Marissa Castro, Director General of Limits, Borders and International Transboundary Waters at Bolivia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, a scalar tension exists in water management: decisions are often made at a level removed from these realities. “This is why we need to enable policymakers to consider smaller-scale differences that illuminate inequalities, addressing issues of poverty, gender inequality, and inclusion of marginalized groups in water-related decision-making,” comments Cláudia Coleoni, Research Associate at SEI Latin America. Granting more decision-making power to regional organizations could bring decisions closer to the action. At the same time, multistakeholder water processes should be given the same space and status that climate issues receive.  

These key messages and the collaborative efforts undertaken during the UN Water Conference underscore our role as facilitators and connectors, linking those working at different scales from local to global. Our task often feels like an intricate balancing act – on one side, ensuring a fair process with equitable participation, while on the other, safeguarding ecosystem needs and grappling with global economic pressures. While this work can indeed be demanding and challenging, the rewards are significant. Moments of synchronicity – like the ones experienced during our events at the UN Water Conference that allowed us to derive these key messages truly captured the essence of our mission. Our efforts catalyse the necessary transformations to break boundaries and promote global water security.

List of Panelists from SEI Side Events at the NewYork Water Week and UN Water Conference

Mr. Santi Baran, Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer at the Mekong River Commission 

Mr. Bernard Musana, Head of Knowledge and Forecasting Hub Department at Rwanda Water Resources Board (*remote participation) 

Ms. Joy Busolo, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank 

Ms. Gulzada Azhetova, Water and Environment Specialist, Regional Economic Development Office USAID/CA Almaty 

Mr. Grant Davis, General Manager, California’s Sonoma Water Utility 

Prof. Dr. Sangram Shrestha, Water and Engineering and Management at the Asian Institute of Technology 

Dr. Johan Kling, Head of Department for Water Resources Management, Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwaM) 

Dr. David Lymer, Senior Policy Specialist, Water and Oceans, Swedish International Development Agency 

Mr. Thanapon Piman, Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute 

Mr. Fabián Caicedo, Director of Integrated Water Resources Management at Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development 

 Ms. Marissa Castro, Director General of Limits, Borders and International Transboundary Waters at Bolivia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs 

Mrs. Rayén Quiroga, Head of the Water and Energy Unit, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL)