Webcast Recap

The place was The Hague. The event was the Second World Water Forum in the spring of 2000. More than 5,000 water experts, stakeholder representatives, and government ministers from around the world met to discuss ways to address freshwater shortages and degradation. Everything proceeded as planned until, suddenly, a speech by Egyptian Water Resources Minister Mahmoud Abu Zeid was interrupted by two naked protesters who leaped on stage and shouted, "Stop the Itoiz Dam!" At an event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and its Carnegie Navigating Peace Initiative on June 15, 2006, Ken Conca, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and member the Navigating Peace water working group on the future of water conflict and cooperation, presented research from his book Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building. Winner of the Chadwick F. Alger Prize and the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award, the book was inspired by the actions of the Itoiz protesters, Conca said: "The core question of the book is ‘What's the relationship between this sort of contentious politics, this sort of extra-institutional disruptive politics, and our approaches to global environmental governance?'"

From Global to Local: Expanding Water Governance

Global environmental governance can successfully address transboundary problems in the global commons, Conca said. For example, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerators, air conditioning, and Styrofoam were successfully phased out under international environmental agreements known as the Montreal Protocol. He stated that the effectiveness of global environmental policy is contingent upon several factors:

  • Shared knowledge about the natural resource or environmental phenomena;
  • A clear distinction between international and domestic issues; and
  • An environment that allows key states to exercise authority.

Water, however, does not abide by any of these rules. Knowledge of watersheds tends to end at political boundaries, and many water issues are simultaneously international and domestic. Furthermore, private sector actors are taking an increasingly authoritative role, diminishing the role of the state in managing water resources. Given these factors, Conca argued that water requires a new way of thinking about governance, since classic diplomatic formulas have failed.

New, more informal forms of governance are developing. Conca explained that water governance is "not born in [an] attempt to herd actors together toward least common denominator forms of cooperation," but, rather, arises from social conflicts, such as the Itoiz dam controversy. Water conflicts, he argued, are often socio-ecological in nature and address basic questions: "Whose water is it? Who should decide? How much is water worth, as what, and to whom? Is water a human right? Is it a market good?" The social struggle to answer these questions lays the groundwork for new forms of water governance. These new forms are developing in several arenas, including the network of experts in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), a comprehensive management policy in which all stakeholders work toward attaining sustainable use of water resources.

Conca pointed out that "water neoliberalism," which treats water as a market good, can engender social discontent and, thus, spur alternative forms of water governance. This discontent, while not a formal institution of governance, has led to social movements—like the stripping protestors at the World Water Forum—that constitute another mode of governance. Globalization presents a new opportunity for actors, such as the protestors, who do not abide by the traditional formalities of environmental diplomacy.

Global governance does not always cover all bases: "What do we do when [the political conditions for] the tried-and-true institutional forms for herding governments together and promoting inter-sovereign diplomacy for environmental protection...simply do not exist?" he asked. Specifically, local problems do not fit the standard model of governance: "The most immediate causes and effects of [water] problems are quite localized, so they don't get on the radar the way the transboundary and global commons problems do," explained Conca. These local problems require not only local governance, but also some form of global environmental governance, due to the international aspects of water resources.

Looking for a "Window"

Conca used case studies of Brazil and South Africa to examine how water governance has changed over the last two decades. Both countries had a "window of opportunity" to reform water governance following the end of military rule in Brazil in 1985 and apartheid in South Africa in 1991. Conca discovered that these countries' innovative new policies and legislation had a great deal in common, including stakeholder participation, river basin management, and constitutional guarantees of the right to water. Interestingly, he found that Brazil and South Africa's progress in water governance did not emerge from international law: "Rather it was the informal linkages—including the informal linkages that were created by the transnational protest networks and controversies—that were critically important sources of policy initiatives," he said.

Conca argued that despite this progress, the hard questions of water governance remain unanswered: "We've never really gotten a good answer out of IWRM [of] what do we really mean by participation?...What do we really mean about the right price for water?" He warned that dialogue surrounding water conflicts is becoming institutionalized, and recommended that water institutions avoid repeating the processes of other international governance institutions. Instead, he identified stakeholder dialogues, conflict resolution techniques, and mechanisms of cooperative knowledge building as three ways to move forward.

Discussant Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, agreed that examples of good governance of water are still hard to find. However, he argued that the lack of specific guidelines and set formulas is actually a good thing: "The golden principle is not to have a golden principle in water management." Since each water resource has a unique set of variables, a common set of rules is nearly impossible. He recommended that water policy analysis consider other factors—besides water—that motivate social movements, pointing to the transformation of water politics in southeast India, where the compensation packages paid to people displaced by dams have created a new socio-economic class.

The Role of the Private Sector

During the question and answer session, Conca explained that the role of non-state actors—including the private sector—is continually increasing in scope, and is central to conflicts surrounding the construction of large dams and water marketization. The stakeholder panel for the World Commission on Dams (WCD), made up almost entirely of non-state actors, demonstrated the growing role of the private sector. The WCD panel, which brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss dam construction around the world and develop best practices for future dam projects, reversed the traditional role of state and non-state actors. Non-state actors negotiated the text, and subsequently sought support from their respective governments. As Conca explained, the institutionalization of social conflicts surrounding water has created a situation in which non-state actors and activist movements "increasingly have the capacity to be important voices that can't be ignored…the long-run process around this kind of network building has actually been something that while it is informal, is increasingly embedded, and increasingly looks like governance."

Drafted by Marybeth Redheffer.


  • Ken Conca

    Director, Global Environmental Politics Program, American University
  • Ashok Swain

    Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden