Bureaucratic saturation of water management?

Climate & Natural resources03 Dec 2009Sara Hughes

Water is one of the most important resources on the planet – it provides for the basic needs of people, plants and animals. It’s no surprise, then, that many of the conference sessions here in Volendam have focused on the ways that water is used and misused around the world, and how we might better plan for the future.

One recurring theme in the water management discussions was whether we should be aiming for more or less institutional development or, put another way, are we over-bureaucratizing water management? Many academic prescriptions for water management involve the creation of new entities and new rules – river basin organizations, adaptive management strategies, flood control planning, climate adaptation boards, bridging organizations, etc. But how do we know when we’ve reached the level of bureaucratic saturation? Do we really do more harm than good when we develop a basin-wide management strategy, for example, or propose new irrigation schemes to adapt to climate change? Is it better to work to improve the existing institutions (rules, rights systems, decision-making procedures) rather than continually add new ones?

A clear answer to these questions has yet to emerge, although lively debate was in no short supply. Some evidence from Canada and Chile shows that in ‘normal’ times, having too many different organizations operating at once confuses water users and hinders their efforts to innovate. For example, it can be hard for farmers to know who to call about irrigation improvement strategies. But what about times of emergency or conflict? One possibility may be to have institutions that arise only in times of crisis or disturbance – a water court can act when there is a conflict between users, or an evacuation programme can be activated when a flood is imminent.

It is particularly interesting to see these discussions coming from academics, who seem to be questioning some of their own prescriptions following evidence from the ground. But it remains to be seen whether there are still advantages to be had from the ‘beneficial redundancy’ complex that institutional structures for water management can provide.