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Water governance

Water governance relates to the enabling environment in which water management actions take place: that is, the overarching policies, strategies, plans, finances and incentive structures that concern or influence water resources; the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks and institutions; and planning, decision-making and monitoring processes. Effective water governance promotes responsible actions and measures to protect and ensure the sustainability of water resources and to optimize the services and benefits obtained from those resources.

FAO’s work on water governance distances itself from predefined notions and “principles” that might lead to judgements or imply that there is a predefined model of governance that would be most suitable for all countries. In any given country, our approach involves understanding the context-specific governance system without judging it; providing support for stakeholders; and creating space for dialogue, debate and the sharing of experiences. The aim is to nourish and stimulate debate – locally and nationally – on possible changes to the water governance system.

FAO focuses on water for agricultural production as a driver of food security and ending hunger, and as an engine for poverty alleviation and rural development. The Organization’s work on water governance, as embedded in its Strategic Framework, contributes to and is harmonized with the cross-cutting theme of governance, helps serve relevant FAO regional initiatives, and seeks to ensure coherence with activities related to the governance of other natural resources, notably land. Work on water governance builds on FAO’s achievements and experience, particularly its Comprehensive Programme for Coping with Water Scarcity and the Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity in the Near East and North Africa.

In recent decades, attempts to address water-related issues have focused on management at the expense of the governance dimension and have mostly taken a sectoral approach. Although many such attempts have been successful in various ways, the management-focused approach seems now to have reached its limit. Agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of all water use, is increasingly required to “make its case” for its share of water to enable food production and ensure food security, and the sustainability of agricultural water use is increasingly under scrutiny. There is an urgent need to consider how best to address control over, competition for, and access to water resources, while also ensuring efficient and effective management.

Efforts have intensified in recent years to support effective water governance, including through initiatives promoted by international organizations. Although these have helped advance knowledge and promote more effective governance, they have not fully addressed the crucial links between water, land, agriculture and food security. FAO, therefore, is placing increasing emphasis on governance because of its fundamental importance for effective water allocation and management and to better assist its member countries in making the institutional, legal and political adjustments needed for successful water management.

Strengthening water governance in agriculture and food security is essentially concerned with enabling effective and efficient problem-solving in ways that stakeholders view as legitimate. FAO is adapting existing governance assessment tools or developing new ones to address governance as it relates to water and food security, and it is also facilitating the analysis and review of institutions, laws, strategies, planning and investment frameworks to support the effective governance of water quantity and quality. FAO is developing tools for water valuation as a way of better assessing trade-offs and co-benefits and generating information on water allocation mechanisms.

At its 24th Session in October 2014, FAO’s Committee on Agriculture adopted a framework for engaging the Organization more systematically in water governance. The framework established the policy and domains of interventions in the following three mutually supportive areas:

  1. Addressing the linkages, boundary conditions and interfaces between agriculture, water and related key sectors and elements such as food, land, energy, natural resources, societal goals, and major drivers of change.
  2. Moving the scale of intervention from management to the governance of water in agriculture, and pointing to the underlying issues that management approaches alone cannot solve.
  3. Addressing governance issues of access, rights and tenure from the perspective of sustainability, inclusiveness and efficiency.

Highlights of FAO’s work on water governance

The main elements for strengthening the governance dimension of FAO’s programmatic work on water are structured around the following key areas in which water governance is considered crucially important.

1) Water governance in river basins and watersheds

1) Water governance in river basins and watersheds

The efficient, sustainable and equitable allocation and use of water in river basins requires a sound knowledge and understanding of the resource and its uses, the capacity to anticipate change, and a dialogue-based, cross-sectoral and inclusive process to give legitimacy to management decisions, backed by effective policies and institutions. FAO continues to promote the development and adoption of sound and modern water accounting systems, scenario building and dialogue platforms to inform decision-making in a context of increasing uncertainty, as well as the adoption of conducive policies, laws and related institutions. FAO’s work to address the water–energy–food nexus is part of these efforts.

2) Water tenure

2) Water tenure

In many places, formal and informal water governance regimes have not kept pace with growing competition for water and are not conducive to its efficient and equitable management. Generally, mechanisms to reflect values in conditions of resource scarcity and to increase resource-use efficiency are lacking. Moreover, the water-use rights held by farmers are often not protected by law or formally registered. The concept of water tenure can be a useful tool for extending debate beyond water rights and administration and for understanding linkages with land tenure, resource-use efficiency and food security. FAO gathers evidence and engages in reviews, reflections and discussions with key stakeholders on the concept of water tenure and seeks to develop a common understanding of its use as a governance instrument. These efforts are leading progressively to the better integration of approaches to water tenure rights with recognized mechanisms such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.

3) Governance of irrigation

3) Governance of irrigation

FAO’s work on the governance of irrigation includes the development of tools and implementation of activities aimed at modernizing irrigation. In this way, FAO supports government institutions and other stakeholders, including water-users’ organizations, to establish an enabling environment and strengthen institutional mechanisms for addressing the complexities of irrigation management. The direct objective is to support countries to increase water productivity in irrigated agriculture as a central solution to water scarcity.

The work on modernization helps countries in assessing the potential for increasing water productivity. It also helps identify priority actions for making such gains and meeting the associated costs, and to estimate the expected benefits for farmers’ livelihoods, food security, economic returns and potential water savings. Interventions to improve productivity are often needed at several levels (e.g. country, region, basin, scheme, farm and plot). They may include agricultural and water policy reforms; the design of governance and institutional frameworks; incentives and regulatory measures for agricultural water users; targeted agricultural investments; improved market access; infrastructure modernization; technology; mechanization; land reform; improved farm-management practices; improved extension and water services; and access to finance. 

4) Groundwater governance

4) Groundwater governance

The main goal of the programme on groundwater governance led by FAO is to create more awareness – and thereby influence policy decisions – on the paramount importance of groundwater resources and their sustainable management in averting the impending water crisis. The programme, which is supported by the Global Environment Facility, is implemented jointly by FAO, UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, the International Association of Hydrologists and the World Bank.

The project has developed a framework for action on groundwater governance, consisting of a set of policy and institutional guidelines, recommendations and best practices designed to be adapted to local contexts and to improve groundwater governance at the local, national and transboundary levels. Future actions of the programme include supporting the implementation of the framework to improve groundwater governance in countries with shared aquifers and the development of a global code of conduct on groundwater governance.

5) Governance of water for pollution control and water quality management

5) Governance of water for pollution control and water quality management

Water quality is a global challenge closely linked to agriculture as both a cause and victim of water pollution. Water-quality governance is a complex subject; it is often weak and prone to corruption. FAO’s work on water-quality governance, in partnership with stakeholders such as the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization, focuses on developing tools (e.g. tailored quality standards, guidelines on treatment and recycling, environmental impact assessments, measurement and monitoring), and on strengthening regulations and institutional reforms for water-quality management and pollution control. 

6) Putting food security at the centre of the international water debate

6) Putting food security at the centre of the international water debate

FAO continues to emphasize the role of water in food security and sustainable natural resource management in agriculture in international debates on water policy and management. It does this through strategic partnerships with international institutions and stakeholder groups and by taking advantage of prominent fora where key decisions are made or influenced. An example is FAO’s collaboration with the World Water Council in jointly organizing the High-level Panel on Water for Food at the Seventh World Water Forum in 2015, where water governance in agriculture was discussed.

FAO also continues to lead activities on food security and sustainable agriculture through the multistakeholder UN-Water mechanisms and programmes, such as the World Water Development Report. Recognizing that high-quality data and information are essential for water governance, FAO also focuses on water monitoring capacity, supporting global efforts to monitor the water-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.