Water Politics

Here you will find information on how the Water Governance chair group approaches water politics, research lines and educational activities related to this governance domain.

Underlying the Water Politics domain are three common principles that highlight how the Chair Group approaches this domain:

  • Process oriented view of governance: decision making is a highly political, contested process;
  • Focus on how relations of power mediate access to waters; concerned with the impact on social equity;
  • Relationships between social-technical-ecological: water - infrastructure – society.

Research lines

Within the Water Politics domain three research lines are pursued:

Urban Waters: Urbanization and Access to Water & Sanitation

The Water Governance chair group takes urban waters (wastewater, ground water, surface water, piped water, flood water) as the product of socio-natural processes, such as changes in land-use, hydrological processes, social organization, shifts in governance, and technological innovations. Our research is interested in how the process of urbanization shapes the politics of access to water supply and sanitation, and informs the various patterns of supply that emerge in response to both hydrological/biophysical, technical, and social conditions of possibility. We understand urbanization as a thoroughly geographical process - not only spatial - involving inter-related economic, socio-political, cultural, technical, and ecological transformations. These transformations are dynamic along shifting boundaries of a rural/urban continuum.

Our research is concerned with the various modes of access to water and sanitation in cities of the global South, and how these are shaped by socio-political, technical, and ecological networks. Emerging research is focused on the socio-natural production of floods and water security, and transfer of flood risk between urban populations.

Relevant staff publications

  • Ahlers, R., Perez Guida, V. and Schwartz, K. (2013), 'The Myth of ‘Healthy’ Competition in the Water Sector: The Case of Small Scale Water Providers', Habitat International, 38, pp. 175-182. [doi:10.1016/j.habitatint.2012.06.004]
  • Dorcas, M. and Schwartz, K. (forthcoming 2013), ‘The Politics of Utility Reform: A Case Study of the Ugandan Water Sector’, Public Money and Management.
  • Rusca, M. and Schwartz, K. (2012), ‘From Passive Recipient to Empowered Client? The Changing Role of Water Consumers’, Environmental Engineering and Management Journal, 11(5), pp. 991-997.
  • Ahlers, R., Perez Guida, V., Rusca, M. and Schwartz, K. (2012), ‘Unleashing Entrepreneurs or Controlling Unruly Providers? The Formalisation of Small-scale Water Providers in Greater Maputo, Mozambique’, Journal of Development Studies. [doi:10.1080/00220388.2012.713467]
  • Rusca, M. and Schwartz, K. (2012), ‘Divergent Sources of Legitimacy: A Case Study of International NGOs in the Water Services Sector in Lilongwe and Maputo’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 38(3), pp. 681-697. [doi:10.1080/03057070.2012.711106]
  • Guzman Ruiz, A., Hes, E. and Schwartz, K. (2011), ‘Shifting Governance Modes in Wetland Management: A Case Study of two Wetlands in Bogota, Colombia’, Environment and Planning C, 29(6), pp. 900-1003. [doi:10.1068/c10144]

Water Resource Configurations

This research line analyses how water configurations are shaped through practices of manipulation, regulation and representation of the ways in which water flows through landscapes. We understand water configurations as the outcomes of negotiations processes between players over the access to, control over and distribution of water resources which are embedded in larger discourses over purpose and fairness of water and land arrangements and ever contingent material flows.

In this research line we trace the linkages between water flows, infrastructure, everyday practices of water use and the formulation of water laws, reforms and policies to understand how water configurations are continuously being reshaped.

We combine field observations, interviews and flow measurements to unravel the power relations animated through the hybrid institutions and infrastructures that mediate the relationships between people and water. This allows us to understand how water configurations (1) are constituted through historical and context specific processes of negotiation, and (2) how their transformation affects different water users. In this we consider the life histories and multiple identities of the water users as well as the prevailing social constructs such as gender, class and ethnicity in society that influence bargaining and participation processes.

Relevant staff publications

  • Kemerink, J., Mendez, L., Ahlers, R., Wester, P. and Zaag, P. van der (2013), ‘The Question of Inclusion and Representation in Rural South Africa: Challenging the Concept of Water User Associations as a Vehicle for Transformation’, Water Policy, 15(2), pp. 243-257.
  • Komakech, H., Zaag, P. van der, Mul, M., Mwakalukwa, T. and Kemerink, J. (2012), ‘Formalization of Water Allocation Systems and Impacts on Local Practices in the Hingilili Subcatchment, Tanzania’, International Journal of River Basin Management, 10 (3), pp. 213-227. [doi:10.1080/15715124.2012.664774].
  • Kemerink, J., Ahlers, R. and Zaag, P. van der (2011), ‘Contested Water Right in Post-apartheid South-Africa: The Struggle for Water at Catchment Level’, Water SA, 37(4), pp. 585-594. [doi:10.4314/wsa.v37i4.16]
  • Mul, M, Kemerink, J., Vyagusa, N., Mshana, M., Zaag, P. van der, and Makurira, H. (2010), ‘Water Allocation Practices among Smallholder Farmers in the South Pare Mountains, Tanzania; Can They Be Up-scaled?’ Agricultural Water Management , 98(11), pp. 1752-1760. [doi:10.1016/j.agwat.2010.02.014]
  • Kemerink, J., Ahlers, R. and Zaag, P. van der (2009), ‘Assessment of the Potential for Hydro-solidarity in Plural Legal Condition of Traditional Irrigation Systems in Northern Tanzania’, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 34, pp. 881-889. [doi:10.1016/j.pce.2009.06.012]

Large Infrastructure and Governance

In the 20th century water governance was largely shaped by large-scale infrastructural development like large dams (Aswan, Hoover, Akosombo), piped municipal drinking water systems, (public) surface irrigation systems (Office du Niger) and all-encompassing river basin development schemes (Afghanistan, TVA).

Shift from engineering to water management

These large scale schemes have had profound social, ecological and economic consequences and have altered the world's land- and waterscapes drastically. Modernisation, nation building, the controlling ability over water and concomitantly land and people, and their symbolic- and discursive functions have all been important for explaining the popularity and proliferation of large hydraulic structures. In the 1980's and 1990's however the focus in water projects and financing shifted away from engineering to water management and put more focus on institutions, operational issues, social aspects, economics and privatisation. Consequently, water related interventions shifted away from technical and infrastructural interventions.

A need for water infrastructure

Roughly since the turn of the millennium large scale water infrastructure is again put forward as prerequisite for development. Several causes can be singled out here. Large dams and hydropower production for instance are widely considered as the mitigation and adaptation measure of choice for many governments, being a renewable, low-carbon energy source that enhances adaptive capacity by storing water. Urbanisation tendency of growing populations require the provision of water supply in expanding cities. The need to increase agricultural production for the approximately 9 billion people that will populate the earth in 2050, and the changing consumption patterns of developing countries with increased consumption of (water-intensive) animal protein are causing renewed attention for large scale irrigation schemes.

Inclusive infrastructural development

This research line aims to answer a range of questions related to this new wave of infrastructure development. What can we learn from the 20th century on large infrastructure development, and how to apply these lessons to insure inclusive infrastructural development now? Though the financial capacity of many developing countries is improving, and thus their capacity to auto-finance infrastructure development, there is the tendency as well to increasingly make use of private financing. Innovative financial and organisational constructions are designed that bridge the historical divide between public and private in water management. Take for instance private financing of dam development in the Mekong, but also informal water supply system development in urban fringes. The shifting origin of financing and actor background raises many questions in itself. What is the role of the state here, who is to regulate these structures, how are they operated and governed? Furthermore, large scale infrastructure development by its very nature has long temporal and spatial shadows, and have impact on the surrounding social, ecological and economic landscape. When decision-making about water infrastructure is spread over different players and realms, it is important to ensure the inclusive, sustainable and equitable design, placing and governance of such infrastructure.

Educational activities

Water governance – In this three-week module various definitions of water governance are analyzed. In doing so, different modes of governance and shifts in governance are discussed. In addition different concepts related to water governance (e.g institutions, policies, organizations) are elaborated upon. The module particularly emphasizes the political nature of water governance (every day politics, politics of policy and global politics) and deconstructs the notion of 'good governance'.

Institutional analysis - In the Institutional Analysis module different conceptual approaches are discussed and illustrated through in-depth case studies. The conceptual approaches highlighted in this three-week module include the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, Institutional Bricolage, Institutional Isomorphism and Legal Pluralism. In discussing these approaches we highlight different streams in thinking about institutions and how these institutions develop.

Urban water governance – The urban water governance module approaches water governance from three interrelated perspectives. The first perspective places the city (and water in the city) in the context of its relationship to the surrounding rural areas. Urban water governance is not just about water in the city, but also very much about the urban within a spatial context. The second perspective focuses specifically on water in peri-urban areas, as the main water and infrastructure challenges in the coming decades will be concentrated in these areas. The third perspective concentrates on the concept of an ‘ecological city’ and as such analyses the use, re-use and flow of water within the city.


Connect with us

Never miss a thing!