Legal Complexity in the Analysis
of Water Rights and Water
Since the 1990s, water problems have been high on national and international policy agendas. Climate change, population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and intensification of agriculture are putting increasing pressures on the resource (see Gleick et al. 2002; Gupta 2004; Petrella 1999). Growing scarcity, overexploitation, and pollution coincide with an ever-increasing demand, leading to competition for resource control between people, sectors, and countries. Unavoidably, these trends have generated sociopolitical tensions and conflicts between users at various levels. They also prompt the call for new approaches to water governance and management that are adapted to the changing use conditions of the resource in a rapidly changing world.
Especially during the last decade, water policy discourse has become truly global (see Brans et al. 1997; Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000). Problems increasingly tend to be framed and phrased in global terms, and standardized solutions are promoted that are assumed to have general and global applicability. In the field of irrigation, for instance, a global discourse of irrigation sector reforms characterized by “model” and “tool-box” approaches has become hegemonic.1 In water management in a more general sense, characterized by competition between multiple uses and users, the common wisdom treats as givens the river basin as a “natural” management unit and the treatment of water as an economic good. It is assumed that the formulation and enforcement of national legal frameworks will facilitate a uniform implementation of such policy principles, and thus provide backing to the water reform process. Yet these standardized approaches face a fundamental criticism: complex problems require a more contextualized understanding (Donahue and Johnston 1998; Wester and Warner 2002). Rights-based approaches to problems of water scarcity attempt to construct water rights as a (globally defined) human right, but fail to provide