Academic journal article Global Governance

Governance and the Global Water System: A Theoretical Exploration

Academic journal article Global Governance

Governance and the Global Water System: A Theoretical Exploration

Article excerpt

Public policy on water has long been approached in the context of a locality, a country, or a river basin. However, scientific evidence now provides compelling arguments for adopting a global perspective on water management. This article argues that water governance today needs a multilevel design, including a significant global dimension. The discussion defines global water governance, highlights the implications for multilevel governance, and examines global water governance through the lens of governance typologies. The analysis along the categories of globalization/regionalization, centralization/decentralization, formality/informality, and state/nonstate actors and processes reveals that current global water governance is a fragmented, mobius-web arrangement. The article concludes by considering possible future trajectories of global water governance. Keywords: global water governance and institutions, multilevel governance, global environmental change.


Water governance can be traced back more than 5,000 years. However, it was only in 1982 and 1997, respectively, that global water agreements like the UN conventions on the seas and watercourses were adopted. (1) Only recently has water become prominent on the global political agenda--for example, with the Mar del Plata conference of 1977, the Dublin conference on water in 1992, the water chapter in Agenda 21 adopted in 1992, the four World Water Forums since 1997, and the Millennium Declaration of 2000. Likewise, scientific work on water has only recently been globalized--for example, with the Global Water System Project of the Earth System Science Partnership and the UN-wide World Water Assessment Programme. Growing political interest in water research and governance raises the questions: What are the appropriate levels at which research and policy on water governance should be undertaken; and which issues should be addressed at which levels?

In this article, we argue that there are different levels at which water scholars and policymakers advocate governance, but the global perspective on water governance needs to be given more importance. We present a conceptual framework for analyzing governance and conclude that present global water governance (GWG) is a mobius-web form of governance. Regarding the future of GWG, we identify four possible trends in line with scenarios prepared by scholars in related fields. We also consider the implications for water management of these different scenarios.

Why should global governance scholars be interested in GWG? To begin with, huge amounts of financial, administrative, and intellectual resources are being spent in the area of water governance and in related fields of environmental governance. A number of new ethical, conceptual, and management approaches are being generated and debated in different political contexts about how water resources can best be managed. These developments need to be recorded and assessed.

Water is a major global public good. Global governance theories that do not actively study the management of global public goods--particularly in the environmental area--will miss the rapidly evolving key issues of the twenty-first century. The contemporary world is extremely competitive, increasingly resource-scarce, and subject to far-reaching environmental change. As systemic and cumulative trends indicate global stress in the very resource base of society, including water, there are increasing calls for sustainability science (2) and Earth System Governance theories. (3) Studies of GWG can help to explore these possibilities.

Indeed, research on GWG and comparisons between GWG and other areas of environmental governance may provide valuable insights that could enrich the traditional core of global governance theories. For example, there is considerable discussion in the socioecological literature on the need to find transitional governance approaches to help society move from current unsustainable governance paradigms to future more sustainable governance paradigms. …

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