Knowing water better: towards fairer and more sustainable access to natural resources - KnoWat


Water tenure determines how people gain access to and make use of water resources, including surface water in streams and rivers, ponds, lakes and groundwater contained in aquifers. Water tenure can be defined as: 

The relationships, whether legally or customarily defined, between people, as individuals or groups, with respect to water resources”. 

Water tenure, like any other type of tenure, is a social construct. 

It can derive from different sources, including formal, informal, customary, traditional and indigenous systems. Formal law, often described in terms of ‘water rights’, includes permits, licenses, small scale so-called ‘free uses’, concessions, contracts, membership in a water user association and legal powers conferred on public bodies. Local communities and indigenous peoples who exercise self-governance of natural resources may apply their own rules for the allocation, management, use and protection of water resources. They often share resources based on social, cultural or religious norms, some of which may be recognized by formal law. 

Water tenure arrangements can be very complex and vary considerably, including within the same country, according to local terrain, geography, social position, group, culture, environment and the livelihoods practiced. Different water tenure arrangements may coexist in the same region, and water users may be part of more than one water tenure arrangement.

Water tenure arrangements may define and safeguard the rights to use and manage water as well as the duties to protect the water resources for other users and natural ecosystems. They may also define how water users can resolve conflicts over water resources. 

To ensure an equitable distribution to all users with legitimate use rights and protect natural ecosystems, it is important that existing water tenure arrangements are coherent, and all legitimate tenure rights recognized by national legislation.

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