4 – What is water governance? 1e

Water governance refers to the overall framework and processes for decision-making and implementation of policies related to the use and management of water resources.

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Water governance refers to the overall framework and processes for decision-making and implementation of policies related to the use and management of water resources.

What is water governance, and why is it important in the water sector?

Water governance refers to the overall framework and processes for decision-making and implementation of policies related to the use and management of water resources. It involves a range of actors, including central and local governments, regulators, non-governmental organizations, communities, and the private sector. Effective water governance is critical to ensure the sustainable and efficient use of water resources, address water-related challenges, and promote equitable access to water services.

Water governance plays a crucial role in defining the policies, regulations, and rules governing water resource allocation, distribution, and use. It helps to ensure that water resources are managed to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, including households, businesses, and the environment. Effective water governance is also essential to address water-related challenges, such as water scarcity, water quality degradation, and climate change, and promote sustainable water resource management.

Effective water governance helps to ensure that water resources are managed in a transparent, accountable, and equitable manner and that water services are delivered in a way that meets the needs of customers while also being financially sustainable. It also plays a key role in promoting the efficient use of water resources, encouraging the adoption of sustainable practices in the water sector, and promoting the integration of water-related policies, such as water scarcity, water quality, and access to water.

In the last two decades, there has been an extensive debate about the exact definition of “Water Governance”, in case you would like to discover more about this topic. We invite you to have a look at the article “Unpacking Water Governance: A Framework for Practitioners“.

Which are the main stakeholders to design effective water governance?

Water governance is a multifaceted field that requires the collaboration and commitment of various stakeholders. These stakeholders play diverse roles in shaping policies, managing resources, and ensuring that water is used and distributed in a sustainable and equitable manner. From international organizations to local community groups, the stakeholders in water governance are organized into several main categories, including Financing, Water Allocation, Spatial Planning, and Other Stakeholders, each encompassing different actors and responsibilities. The collective efforts of these stakeholders contribute to the complexity and success of water governance systems globally. We can broadly resume the main stakeholders in the following list:


  • International Organisations: Collaborate on global water policies.
  • Science and Academia: Conduct research to support water management.
  • Donors and Financial Institutions: Provide funding for water projects.
  • Media: Raise public awareness about water governance.

Water Allocation:

  • Regulators: Oversee water usage and distribution.
  • Watershed Institutions: Manage specific water regions.
  • Governments (national, regional, local): Set and implement policies.
  • Business: Companies needing water in supply chains.
  • Civil Society: Represent citizens, NGOs, and community interests.

Spatial Planning:

  • Service Providers: Manage public and private water delivery.
  • Consumers Association: Represent consumer interests.
  • Agricultural Actors: Require water for farming.
  • Trade Unions and Workers: Advocate for workers’ rights within the sector.

Other Stakeholders:

  • Women, Youth, The Poor: Advocate for inclusive access to water.
  • Nature: Represents environmental concerns.
  • Indigenous Communities: Uphold traditional water rights and practices.

Each group reflects different aspects and levels of water governance, from financing and distribution to spatial planning and inclusivity, illustrating the intricate collaboration needed for effective water management.

What are the main institutions involved in water governance, and what are their roles and responsibilities in Europe?

Water governance involves a variety of institutions at different levels, including international, national, and local organizations. The main institutions involved in water governance include:

  • International organizations such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), and World Water Council (WWC), set global standards for water management and provide technical and financial support for water-related initiatives.
  • The European Commission is responsible for developing and implementing EU water policies, including the Water Framework Directive and the Floods Directive, and ensuring that EU countries comply with these policies.
  • The European Parliament is responsible for representing the interests of EU citizens and passing laws that govern the EU.
  • The Council of the European Union represents the governments of EU countries and is responsible for passing laws and making decisions on behalf of the EU.
  • The European Environmental Agency provides information and support to EU countries on environmental issues, including water management, and helps monitor and evaluate EU water policies.
  • National governments are responsible for creating and implementing water policies and laws and ensuring the sustainable management of water resources.
  • Regulatory agencies, such as ARERA in Italy, ERSAR in Portugal, or OFWAT in England, are responsible for ensuring that water services are provided in a safe, reliable, and sustainable manner and for setting policies and regulations that govern the water sector.
  • Water utilities are responsible for providing water services to customers and ensuring that water is supplied and used in a sustainable and equitable manner.
  • Civil society organizations play an important role in advocating for the rights of water users and the protection of water resources.
  • The private sector, which includes water companies, technology providers, and financial institutions, provides water services and supports water-related initiatives.
  • Regional and local authorities often have specific responsibilities in water management and can play a significant role in implementing national and EU policies at the local level.
  • Academic and research institutions contribute to scientific understanding and innovation in water management.

Each of these institutions has its specific role and responsibilities in water governance. However, they all work together to ensure sustainable water use and develop water-related initiatives that benefit communities, the environment, and the economy.

How does water governance differ across countries and regions, and what are the implications of these differences for water management and resource allocation?

Water governance can differ significantly across countries and regions due to factors such as political systems, cultural attitudes, economic development, and the availability of water resources. These differences can have important implications for water management and resource allocation, including:

  • Political systems: In some countries, water governance is centralized and controlled by the government, while in others, it is decentralized and controlled by local authorities. The degree of centralization can significantly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of water governance, as well as the allocation of resources.
  • Cultural attitudes: Cultural attitudes towards water can also vary widely across countries and regions. For example, in some regions, water is seen as a scarce and precious resource, while in others, it is seen as a commodity that can be readily bought and sold. These cultural differences can influence the way water is managed and allocated.
  • Economic development: Economic development can also have a significant impact on water governance, as wealthier countries are often able to invest more in water infrastructure and management systems. In less developed countries, water governance may be more limited by the availability of resources and the ability to invest in water management.
  • Availability of water resources: The availability of water resources can also vary widely across countries and regions, with some areas facing water scarcity and others facing water abundance. These differences can influence how water is managed and allocated and the strategies used to address water scarcity.

Overall, the differences in water governance across countries and regions can have important implications for water management and resource allocation, affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of water governance, as well as the allocation of resources. In order to ensure effective water governance, it is important to understand and address these differences.

The OECD Principles on Water Governance

Water crises around the world are increasingly being recognized as governance crises. The intricate and multifaceted challenges associated with water management are not just about scarcity, pollution, or accessibility; they are rooted in the policies, regulations, and administrative functions governing the use and safeguarding of this vital resource. In response to the pressing need for robust frameworks to navigate these complex issues, the OECD published the report “OECD Principles on Water Governance” in 2015.

  • Roles and Responsibilities: Clearly define and differentiate the roles and responsibilities across water policy-making, implementation, management, and regulation, ensuring effective coordination and addressing any overlaps or conflicts.
  • Integrated Basin Governance: Manage water at appropriate scales and within integrated basin governance systems, reflecting local conditions, promoting cooperation, and enhancing strategies for best use of water resources.
  • Policy Coherence: Encourage cross-sectoral coordination and coherence between policies related to water, environment, health, energy, agriculture, industry, and more.
  • Capacity Building: Adapt the level of capacity of authorities to the complexity of water challenges, encouraging education and training to foster cooperation and knowledge sharing.
  • Data and Information Management: Produce, update, and share timely and relevant water data to guide, assess, and improve water policy, including harmonized systems and minimizing data overload.
  • Financial Mobilization: Ensure governance arrangements help mobilize and allocate financial resources efficiently, transparently, and timely, adhering to principles like polluter-pays and user-pays.
  • Regulatory Frameworks: Implement and enforce sound water management regulations in pursuit of the public interest, promoting transparent and non-discriminatory enforcement.
  • Innovation: Promote the adoption of innovative water governance practices, encouraging experimentation, social learning, and a strong science-policy interface.
  • Integrity and Transparency: Mainstream practices to ensure accountability and trust in decision-making, identifying and addressing corruption risks and promoting legal and institutional frameworks for transparency.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Encourage inclusive and outcome-oriented stakeholder engagement, paying attention to under-represented categories and customizing engagement based on needs.
  • Trade-off Management: Encourage frameworks that manage trade-offs across users, areas, and generations, promoting non-discriminatory participation and public debate on risks and costs.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: Promote regular monitoring and evaluation of water policy and governance, sharing results with the public, and making adjustments as needed.

The 3 dimensions of the governance principles

The 12 principles from the OECD on water governance are not just a list of guidelines; they are systematically organized around three central dimensions that form the core of the governance framework:

  • Effectiveness of Water Governance: This dimension emphasizes the need for well-defined and sustainable water policy goals and targets at various government levels. It focuses on the implementation of these policy goals and the achievement of expected objectives or targets, ensuring that governance contributes to tangible and meaningful outcomes.
  • Efficiency of Water Governance: Efficiency in this context pertains to maximizing the benefits of sustainable water management and societal welfare while minimizing costs. This involves creating governance structures that work in the most resourceful manner, ensuring that the best possible results are achieved with the least possible expenditure of resources.
  • Trust and Engagement in Water Governance: Recognizing the importance of public confidence in governance structures, this dimension centres on building trust and ensuring the inclusiveness of stakeholders. It highlights democratic legitimacy and fairness, aiming to create governance systems that are transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs and rights of society at large.

These three dimensions serve as a holistic framework, guiding the principles towards creating governance systems that are not only effective and efficient but also inclusive and trusted by the communities they serve. By clustering the principles around these dimensions, the OECD provides a coherent and interconnected approach to water governance that acknowledges the complexity of the challenges and the need for integrated solutions.


Water governance is a complex yet essential aspect of managing one of the world’s most precious resources. From the definitions and roles of regulators to the intricate web of institutions at various levels, the governance of water is multifaceted, requiring coordination, clear policies, and inclusive strategies. Recognizing the potential challenges and leveraging guiding principles such as those provided by the OECD offers a blueprint for effective governance. By aligning efforts around Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Trust and Engagement, we can strive for a water management system that not only meets the needs of all stakeholders but also stands as a testament to responsible stewardship of a resource that sustains life itself. Whether it’s addressing scarcity, quality degradation, or ensuring equitable access, the approach to water governance sets the stage for sustainability and resilience in an ever-changing world.

This article is a part of the ‘Water Basics Series,’ a collection of pieces designed to shed light on the water sector and water regulation. To learn more about this vital sector, you can return to the main page of the series and explore other articles.

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Unpacking Water Governance: A Framework for Practitioners

OECD Report: “OECD Principles on Water Governance

OECD Studies on Water: “Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance

OECD Water Governance Framework Indicator