New European research network on sustainable water governance

*** Deadline for applications to PhD positions has been extended to May 24 ***

By Jens Newig

Ensuring access to clean water and the protection of healthy water ecosystems remain among the greatest challenges humankind is facing. The United Nation’s (2006) dictum that “the world water crisis is a crisis of governance – not one of scarcity” has become a modern proverb. Countless paradigms and approaches to water governance have been developed and (more or less fully) implemented across the globe (Huitema et al. 2009; Biswas and Tortajada 2010; Newig and Challies 2014). But have “Adaptive Water Governance”, “Integrated Water Resources Management” (IWRM) or “River Basin Governance” in fact been instrumental in furthering sustainable water management? Will we need new paradigms or merely better implementation of those existing ones? Or will water governance approaches just have to be better tailored to their respective biogeophysical, cultural and institutional contexts?

Such questions, among others, are at the heart of the European research network ‘NEWAVE (Next Water Governance)’ that has been launched early this year. NEWAVE is funded as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network (ITN) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme and brings together around a dozen European research groups plus international partners, together hosting 15 PhD projects that are to start later this year. The NEWAVE project, which is co-ordinated by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Prof. Jampel Dell’Angelo and Prof. Dave Huitema) “aims to point the way forward in the global debate about water governance. It does so by developing research and training for a new generation of future water governance leaders, and by equipping them with the transdisciplinary skills to better tackle water challenges” (NEWAVE website).

While the project will address a variety of different perspectives on water governance – such as water scarcity, the management of urban water demand, European water policy, participatory water governance, or the role of consultancy firms – it introduces a common heuristic framework, following the “3 Ps” logic of problématiques, paradigms and patterns of governance.

Problématiques: Rather than starting out with what governance does (or doesn’t), NEWAVE pursues a problem-oriented logic and begins by diagnosing and assessing the nature of existing and emerging water-related problems. This serves “to develop an understanding of the socio-hydrological conditions in which paradigms are diffused and governance approaches are tried out” (NEWAVE website). Water-related problématiques range from unresolved local pollution to globalized and “telecoupled” issues (which we address in the project GOVERNECT) such as virtual water trade. Here, governance has to cope with spatially and socially distant causes of local problems, for which there are often no governance approaches, let alone concrete rules and measures, available.

Paradigms: Given the current and emerging water-related problématiques, NEWAVE will study the grand discourses on how water governance should be designed, as manifested in certain water governance paradigms. This “allows to engage with the ideational underpinnings of water governance, making it possible to understand why proponents of certain approaches have come to accept and embrace them, why they propagate them, and how the global circulation of ideas about governance works” (NEWAVE website). The project will assess whether and to what extent paradigms (such as the ones listed above) have shaped concrete water governance arrangements, or whether they have remained largely symbolic.

Patterns of water governance: Ultimately, it is the governance arrangements, the concrete institutionalization of governance in its instruments and measures that is expected to yield more sustainable water management outcomes, addressing lurking, acute and imminent problems of scarcity and health of ecosystems. NEWAVE studies such patterns of governance to understand how they emerge and whether and how they deliver in terms of social and ecological sustainability. Which modes of governance have proven most effective in what contexts?

Through this common framework, NEWAVE aims at cumulative knowledge development. “NEWAVE will consistently advance state of the art procedures, produce actionable water governance science for sustainable development, and contribute to scientific excellence.” (NEWAVE website).

One PhD researcher (“ESR = early-stage researcher”) will be hosted by our research group at Leuphana University (see the job description here). She or he will contribute to generating both conceptual advances and robust empirical evidence on which approaches work in which contexts towards achieving sustainable water governance. To this end, the project will first review the literature on existing empirical studies on ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of water governance approaches (objective 1). Building on this, the project will seek to analytically dissect existing water governance institutions into ‘building blocks’ (objective 2). Ideally, all water governance institutions can be split up into a finite number of such building blocks. The further empirical analysis (objective 3) will then assess the performance of water governance institutions in selected countries by drawing on existing academic literature, document analysis and key expert interviews. Governance institutions will be analysed according to the building blocks they consist of, allowing to assess which combination of building blocks leads to sustainable outcomes (or not). Results will be discussed with leading experts and practitioners in the field in order to enhance usability and robustness of the research (objective 4).

Cited literature

Biswas, A.K. and C. Tortajada (2010) ‘Future Water Governance: Problems and Perspectives.’ International Journal of Water Resources Development 26 (2): 129-39.

Huitema, D., E. Mostert, W. Egas, S. Moellenkamp, C. Pahl-Wostl and R. Yalcin (2009) ‘Adaptive water governance: Assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda.’ Ecology and Society 14 (1).

Newig, J. and E. Challies (2014) Water, rivers and wetlands, in Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, ed. P.G. Harris. London, New York: Routledge: 439-52.

 

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