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Water Governance in Europe: Insights from Spain, the UK, Finland and Estonia

This study examines management practices linked to water governance of limnic, groundwater and marine systems in Europe, drawing lessons from four case studies.


Osbeck, M., K. Berninger, K. Andersson, P. Kuldna, N. Weitz, J. Granit and L. Larsson (2013). Water Governance in Europe: Insights from Spain, the UK, Finland and Estonia. Report prepared for the Swedish All Party Committee on Environmental Objectives (Miljömålsberedningen).

Based on a recognition of the need for more coordinated, holistic and inter-sectoral policy implementation, the study explores the lessons learned from developing and implementing new or better coordinated approaches to water governance. It provides an overview of current water governance arrangements in four countries, and examples of where these support effective and coherent implementation of the various EU directives linked to the water sector.

The study asks: Who are the key stakeholders? What is the division of responsibility between different sectors and scales? Are current administrative practices (management instruments) suitable for water governance? To what extent are transparency, public participation and accountability promoted in water resource management? What are the key measures used to promote participation?

The methodology uses a soft system approach that views the water sector as a whole. Changing one part of the system, or initiating one course of action, will create changes elsewhere in the system. In the case of water governance, given its broad definition, this presents a challenge. What particularly distinguishes the soft system approach is that it reveals and deals explicitly with the different world views of stakeholders.

The authors also present four case studies, of Spain, the UK, Finland and Estonia, and draw several key lessons:

  • Policy processes targeting freshwater, coasts and marine management are not well integrated.
  • Managing water from a spatial point of view is a challenge considering existing governance frameworks based on functional approaches.
  • The development of River Basin Management Plans and selection of measures is undertaken differently in the four countries.
  • Monitoring systems to gauge the effectiveness of the implementation of agreed measures are weak.
  • The public and private sectors have different roles in water governance in the case study countries, ranging from fully public to public-private partnerships.
  • Stakeholder participation in water management differs across the four case studies.
  • Measures that support stakeholder participation in water management appear to be central.
  • There is a need to support and recognize the work of local stakeholders in water resources management.
  • Engaged stakeholders raise awareness and promote sustainability.

Download the report (PDF, 2MB)

SEI authors

Piret Kuldna

Senior Expert (Environmental Management Programme)

SEI Tallinn

Nina Weitz
Nina Weitz

Team Leader: Global Goals and Systems; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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