Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 14: Water Democracy in Action: Delegated (or shared) Water Governance Partnerships


Successful Peoples Water Forum Press Conference, Istanbul. Photo credit: Daniel MossDelegated (or “devolved” or “shared” or “collaborative”) water governance may be broadly defined as the involvement of non-state actors in decision making for water management. This frequently (but not always) implies the delegation of decision making to lower scales of governance such as the watershed, municipality or region. Watershed partnerships are made up of stakeholders with diverse views. Watershed groups are typically smaller, initiated by private individuals rather than government, and composed of like-minded individuals, such as landowners or environmentalists. ********* Hundreds of watershed groups – groups established to monitor waterways – exist in the United States, and the European Union Water Framework Directive now legally requires the establishment of watershed groups in all of its river basins. Delegated water governance partnerships often involve the following:
  • delegation by government (or the relevant authority) of water governance to a lower, more local scale;
  • greater involvement of a wide variety of non-state actors;
  • the use of a hydrographic boundary, such as the watershed, rather than political boundaries;
  • collaborative decision-making processes, often emphasizing consensus and trust-building;
  • science-based decision making, often requiring extensive fact-finding.
Various aspects of delegated governance have been incorporated into earlier water management initiatives (such as watershed-based agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority). Perhaps the most novel aspects of delegated water governance partnerships are the involvement of a large number of stakeholders representing diverse interests who treat each other more or less as equals, and the principle that decision making should not be left solely to government experts. The possible advantages of delegated water governance include
  • access to “local” expertise that can improve the quality of decision making;
  • the ability to adapt regulatory programs to meet local conditions;
  • empowerment of stakeholders (particularly those traditionally marginalized);
  • reinforcement of “social trust” between stakeholders, and reduction of conflict over competing uses;
  • greater cooperation in information-sharing;
  • greater political legitimacy (and thus enforceability) of water management planning outcomes; and
  • more positive outcomes that have the “buy-in” and support of influential interests.
The possible disadvantages include
  • focus on local environmental interests to the exclusion of regional or national environmental concerns;
  • emphasis on consensus leading to politically workable solutions rather than environmentally optimal solutions;
  • unequal representation of stakeholders at the local level;
  • long-term sustainability undermined by large amounts of volunteer time required (risking “burnout”);
  • greater overall costs, and more time required to produce outcomes, such as water use or watershed plans.

Factors in Success

The academic literature suggests that there are numerous criteria that increase the chances of success of delegated water governance partnerships: sustainable funding; effective leadership and management; interpersonal trust amongst participants; and committed, cooperative participants were the four factors most frequently mentioned in one of the largest studies to date of U.S.delegated water governance partnerships (Leach & Pelkey, 2001). Additional factors included:
  • broad and inclusive membership.
  • adequate time, well-defined process rules.
  • formal enforcement mechanisms.
  • effective communication.
  • adequate scientific and technical information.
  • adequate monitoring, low or medium levels of conflict.
  • limited (manageable) temporal and geographical scope of activities.
  • training in collaborative skills.
  • adequate community resources.
Not all of these factors of success can be provided or managed by governments, even where governments initiate the partnership. This suggests that the process for engaging in delegated water governance partnerships should acknowledge that the conditions do not always exist for collaborative approaches to work, and hence these approaches are not always appropriate.


  • The World Bank and IMF have been promoting devolution or decentralization projects for years as a part of structural adjustment. Should water justice movements embrace these types of models? If so, how do we do this and still promote equity, democracy and sustainability?
  • How can efforts to nurture local democratic control of water be supported by regional and national initiatives and systems?

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