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  • The Generation, Diffusion, and Impact of Innovations in Global Water Governance
  • Dave Huitema (bio) and Sander Meijerink (bio)

I. Introduction

The purpose of this contribution is to turn an eye to the worldwide discussion on water governance of the past decades, and key innovations that have been proposed there. We do so because water is a major passion of Helen Ingram's, she is a critical follower of water governance innovations (see for instance Ingram, 2008), and she is a stern advocate for applying social science theory to water management issues (see, e.g., Blatter and Ingram, 2001). We also do so because water managers around the world are surrounded by increasingly uncertain and unpredictable social and ecological environments. Huitema et al. (2010, no page number available) write:

The field of water management is in flux. Climate change is making itself felt, as an increase in the occurrence of extreme water events and rising sea levels are expected (see, e.g., Easterling et al. 2000, Cabanes et al. 2001, Gleick at al. 2001, Alley et al. 2005). Serious flaws in the traditional engineering approach to water management have become clear in recent decades—including the massive social and ecological damage caused by dams (see, e.g., World Commission on Dams 2000, Gleick 2003, Stone 2008)… . In developing responses, water managers are faced with relatively high levels of uncertainty surrounding the consequences of their actions as they [End Page 83] are dealing with social-ecological systems that exhibit, among other things, complexity, non-reducibility, spontaneity, variability, and a collective quality (Dryzek 1987:28-33). The implication is that water managers do not and will not completely know the social-ecological systems they are intervening in. Yet, they often have little room for error as so many depend on them to find the right answers. Water issues can thus be portrayed as yet another example of a "wicked problem" (Rittel and Webber 1973).

In this context there is a premium on innovation—the capacity to radically alter existing approaches in light of new circumstances—and this is exactly what this contribution focuses on. We discuss innovations in water governance by reinterpreting the findings of two large-scale international comparative studies (Huitema and Meijerink, 2009a, 2014) which had not been written from an innovation perspective per se. However, both books clearly show that quite a few innovations have been going on in water governance since the 1980s (the description that follows dovetails well with the innovations discussed by Ingram, 2008).

Decentralization of water resources management to regional and local levels (water boards) has been the dominant trend in many countries for decades now. At the same time, an increasing number of international organizations, such as transboundary river basin organizations and donor organizations, have come to play a role in water resources management. Privatization has become a key issue in the debate on the governance of water services such as drinking water supply, sewerage, and wastewater treatment. Stakeholder participation features in almost any water policy document, and water user associations and participatory irrigation management are common practice nowadays. All these shifts in (water) governance may be conceived of as governance innovations.

In this contribution we will focus on the questions of where the new ideas came from (invention), how water governance innovations are being spread across the globe (diffusion), and how this spreading of governance innovations materializes "on the ground" (impacts). We especially wish to draw attention to the political nature of governance innovation processes. Innovation is not a neutral process. It is often contested and consequences might be different from what was expected. [End Page 84]

2. Governance Innovation Perspectives: Invention, Diffusion, and Effects

Taking a cue from Jordan et al. (2010) and loosely following Kooiman's definition of governance (1993), we define water governance here as the patterns that emerge from the governing activities of social, political, and administrative actors in the realm of water management. These actors undertake efforts to manage emerging water issues, establish and adjust institutions that deal with the issues, and develop ideas about appropriate normative underpinnings for the way water should be governed. Whilst it can be argued that governance...


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