Water is a unique substance, vital for life and wellbeing, and a valuable if unevenly distributed resource. It permeates the daily lives of humans, and plays an integral part in all aspects of society, essential for human health and hygiene, for domestic use, for crop production, in industry and for cultural, religious and recreational purposes.
Water takes on a variety of forms, from groundwater aquifers, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers to vast transboundary basins. It is a source of life as well as a sink of pollution. Hence water is not only about quantity, but also about quality.
The diversity of water’s physical characteristics implies that it is governed and accessed in a variety of different forms, from private wells, rainwater tanks, intricate systems of irrigation channels with common governance, to rivers and transboundary aquifers and watersheds.
The challenge of understanding water governance thus consists in understanding how the features of the physical resource itself shape the institutions – understood as norms and rules – that govern its access, and also the beliefs and ideas that prevail, both in terms of its perceived characteristics (e.g. scarcity) and also in terms of power relations and questions of access. Water governance therefore requires an understanding of the dynamics of how water is perceived, altered, accessed and used.
Noragric’s work focuses on different issues of water governance, scarcity, rights, and security. It has focused on the rights and access of people to water in Southern Africa and India, the case of reforms of water rights and the issue of legal pluralism. We are interested in examining how different scales of water management interact and how global discourses such as Integrated Water Resources Management come to dominate internationally; how these discourses are translated to national and regional levels, and what the implications are for people’s access to water.
Water is one of the few resources that does not have a global convention, as the river basin has come to be seen as the most appropriate governance unit. However, the case for conventions of water governance at the global level are manifold, not least due to the challenges and increasing uncertainty resulting from climate change. Local water pollution is often inherent to the structure of the global economy, and thus needs to be understood in this wider context. Moreover, multinationals are increasingly involved in water supply, and the concept of ‘virtual water’ implies that water is not only a local resource issue, but also a global trade issue. Questions of justice, fairness and sustainability of water distribution and access are therefore not only local and regional issues, but also global concerns.
Developing conceptual frameworks to understand the dynamics and complexities of water governance at multiple levels is a fascinating but under-researched area, and constitutes a profound challenge for research.