Next Water Governance Project

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)’. 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. 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_logo-2-down

The central organizing framework in NEWAVE is formed by the “three Ps” – which reflects the insight that future water governance leaders should have a deep and transdisciplinary understanding of 1) Problématiques – the nature of nowadays water challenges; 2) Paradigms – the ideational underpinnings of current approaches to water governance; and 3) Patterns – the way in which newly proposed approaches interact with existing institutions. NEWAVE proposes cutting edge research on all these aspects from a global perspective, a highly sophisticated training program to teach the required skills to analyze these issues in a reflexive way and to come up with recommendations about them, and a close collaboration with several of the most prominent players in the water governance debate.

PhD project: Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems in global comparison

Numerous models exist to govern water resources, spread across scales and levels, involving different stakeholders, operating in various forms, and with varying degrees of performance.  Even though prior research has reflected on these governance models and their performance in delivering water-related sustainability, it is still unclear which of these governance models – or combinations thereof – have proven effective in maintaining or restoring environmentally sustainable water resources and ecosystems. The project on “Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems in global comparison” will address this gap by 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 provide a comprehensive synthesis by conducting a systematic review of the empirical literature on the “success” and “failure” of existing water governance systems in terms of water-related sustainability (objective 1). Building on this, we will identify principal building blocks of water governance systems by analytically dissecting existing water governance institutions (objective 2). Finally, further empirical analysis will be employed to 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 for Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) of which combination of building blocks leads to sustainable outcomes (or not). This step will allow us to generate an evidence-informed assessment of how (combinations of) governance institutions deliver in terms of water-related sustainability and knowledge on the influence of context on the performance of water governance institutions (objective 3).

As water issues are projected to be an increasingly significant challenge on a global scale in the face of growing complexities and uncertainty, our research project is expected to contribute to the generation of both conceptual advances and robust empirical evidence on water governance and to provide a sense of direction for improvement of existing water governance institutions. To this end, our findings will likely contribute to a better understanding of sustainable water governance systems and context-dependency of governance performance which will further enable the design of more robust and resilient policies and facilitate the process of governance reforms.

Team: Shahana Bilalova, Jens NewigSergio Villamayor-Tomas

PhD project: How does science influence the lifecycle of policy innovations ? The case of the EU Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) was adopted in the year 2000 to protect water bodies in Europe, and is still considered as one of the most monumental pieces of European legislation ever produced. However, twenty years later, the effects of this supranational legislation in the different member states are uneven and more than half of European water bodies have still not reached a good ecological status. The principles promoted by the WFD, such as the cost-recovery principle or the river basin scale approach, have been interpreted by member states, sometimes to the extent that they are devoid of meaning.

This research project investigates how policy innovations such as the Water Framework Directive’s principles can become locked-in and/or have their initial meaning altered through the policy cycle and ongoing reframing debates. From their original design to their transfer outside Europe, it will reveal how their trajectory is shaped by the ways the science-policy interface shares different knowledge regimes, select and represent them in practice. Along the trajectories of one biophysical and one political-economic principle, we will compare the arbitrages, institutional settings and processes of knowledge production that lead to their emergence, stir their adoption in the political agenda, and enable them to persist in time and to be transferred across European borders. To this end, we will explore in particular the conditions and dynamics of the science-policy interface that enhance or limit the credibility, salience and legitimacy of these policy innovations over their life cycle. This study relies essentially on discourse, document and frame analysis.

The ultimate goal of the PhD project is to identify the types of science-policy interactions that are associated with certain evolutions of the WFD principles through time, and in particular those that allow the principles to persist and have concrete impacts on water protection. Moreover, this research and its conceptual inputs should contribute to the opening of new pathways for governance research and institutional change, and support the existing scholarship on the science-policy interface with new analytical tools. Further, the systematic comparison of the findings for each principle in different European countries through a small-n comparative analysis will allow to draw broader conclusions on the role of the science-policy interface in policy change.

Team: Nina ValinDave Huitema, Jens Newig

For details on the NEWAVE project see