Water Policy – Water Politics. Social engineering and strategic action in water sector reform

Water Policy – Water Politics. Social engineering and strategic action in water sector reform

Water politics and development cooperation

The key challenge in the water sector is not a lack of water, knowledge, financial resources or technology. In general, it is the political sphere that determines if water problems are solved or not, if people get access to water or not, if our natural resource base is sustainably developed or overexploited. Politics (the process of decision-making for groups of people, involving the authoritative allocation of values) – the actors, their interests and interactions determine if progress is made or hindered. The outcome of water politics is then reflected in water politics, the substantive outcome of the political interplay in terms of regulations, action programmes or spending priorities of the respective public or private entities.

The contribution maps the ‘politics of water’ as a field of research. Water control is understood as politically contested resource use. Contestation is mapped along two axes: (1) different levels or domains of water politics; (2) issue-networks encompassing processes of contestation within or across levels and domains. The four domains are: the everyday politics of water control, the politics of national water policy, inter-state hydropolitics, and the global politics of water. These have different space and time scales, are populated by different configurations of main actors, have different types of issues as their subject matter, involve different modes of contestation and take place within different sets of institutional arrangements.

Some of the most important questions in water policy and water politics involve the interlinkages across domains, around certain issues. Among the plethora of issue-networks of concrete water politics policy, the chapter focuses on two main ‘sticking points’ in present-day water policy reform processes. (1) The internalisation of ‘new concerns’, notably environment and human development, into the mainstream water sector organisations’ professional practice, and (2) the transformation of state-centered water resources policy processes into society-centered policy processes. The chapter provides a critique of the dominant social engineering approaches to institutional transformation, and argues that unless a self-consciously political strategic action approach to institutional transformation is taken, the deadlock in water sector reform may continue for some time.