Framing concepts in water governance


The concepts that frame water governance convey ideas and values that serve to legitimise or delegitimise particular river basin development pathways. Water governance is discursively and ideationally produced through the projection of political and economic power over space, the promotion of particular technologies, financing and knowledge systems, and through the institutions that govern electricity and water resources.

Key water governance issues:

  • Emphasis on the inherently political and socially embedded nature of water resources governance has challenged overly technical approaches and framings such as those inherent in the concept of integrated water resource management (IWRM)
  • The rise of the water-energy-food 'nexus' as a research, policy and project agenda seeks to understand trade-offs and synergies, increase efficiency and improve governance between food, water and energy systems, thus overcoming limitations of a narrow sectoral approach. However, the nexus concept has also come under criticism for continuing to ignore the politics involved in identifying winners and losers in natural resource decision-making, and failing to engage directly with the issue of justice.
  • Concepts around collective action in water governance focuses on the need to reintroduce a new system of values that embody equity, diversity, and social justice, by placing the commons at the centre of current debates on sustainable development and identifies it as an integral part of the transnational environmental and human rights movement.
  • Human rights based approaches to transnational water governance, such as the concept of ‘arenas of water justice’ and ‘extra-territorial obligations’, seek to challenge decision making processes on transboundary rivers, particularly around large hydropower dams.

Current critique and debate:

Water policy concepts are often idealised schema that are translated into development interventions without much attention to context or reflection on how these policies match socio-economic and political realities on the ground. Some of the key concepts such as integrated water resources management (IWRM) have been referred to as “Nirvana concepts” (Molle, F. 2008. Nirvana concepts, narratives and policy models: Insight from the water sector. Water Alternatives 1,1: 131‐156)

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