The Polis Project: Four big trends emerging in global water governance


Global water governance trends show move away from private ownership

Jeremy Osborn for The Guardian, Monday 10 December 2012


Flooding Old Malton pub

More crises, such as the recent floods in the UK, are one of four big trends emerging in global water governance today says the Polis Water Project. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Throughout history, the most successful civilisations have been those that have managed their water well. These “hydraulic societies” span the cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia through to modernity. The success of modern civilisation is, in many key ways, dependant on our ability to become a global version of the hydraulic society.

But what does an emerging global hydraulic society look like?

Broadly, it means a move away from private ownership, and towards more innovative forms of collaborative governance and resource sharing, but Oliver M Brandes of the Polis Water Project says there are four big trends emerging in global water governance today:

More hands on the steering wheel: around the world, water management is an increasingly localised process, with decision-making happening between a broad variety of public and private stakeholders at the local watershed level. This puts business in direct negotiation not only with governments, but with a wide range of public stakeholders.

More rights for nature: more jurisdictions are using policy to safeguard large portions of their water supply for natural processes. This will continue to create a form of conscious scarcity, where the ability of industry to leave zero or net positive operational impact on water supplies will be critical to maintaining social license to operate.

More water in public trust: increasingly, water cannot be owned, even by governments. Courts in many jurisdictions are citing centuries of common law, which show water as a common asset. This is ending the era of unbounded decision-making on water rights by individual interests, including government. Global water governance is moving towards multi-party, consensus driven decision-making processes, where business is a single voice among many, and where access to, not ownership of, water resources, is becoming the new normal.

More crises: governance changes tend to come rapidly and unexpectedly in response to crises –such as the Australian drought or the UK’s flooding. This can be challenging for companies, because crises are hard to predict, and also because climate change is significantly increasing the number of crises that occur each year. Because of this, companies need to be positioned in advance for rapid and unexpected changes in governance and regulatory practices.

Business as water champions

But overall, water is localising and democratising. Companies, particularly global companies, need to be seen as champions, innovators and responsible stewards of local water in order to maintain reliable access to the resource. As this democratisation process deepens and expands, competitive advantage goes to those who think deeply of the public interest when crafting their water strategy.

Failure to do so has an increasingly serious downside: “Push people on water,” says Brandes, “and they will rise up against you.”

Better to think of collaborative water governance as the economic opportunity that it is. The opportunity lies in contributing private sector innovation capacity to the sorely needed modernisation of 21st century water infrastructure.

The definition of water infrastructure is also changing. No longer just technology, infrastructure for effective water governance is becoming as much social, legal and political as it is technological. Companies that desire regulatory certainty will be expected to push a broad infrastructure innovation agenda, and to be authentically engaged at all levels of the governance process.



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