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Water Governance Reform In The Context Of Inequality: Securing Rights Or Legitimising Dispossession?

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
15. Water law
Author(s): Helle Munk Ravnborg

Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 15: Water law,


Introduction In response to -- and in some cases even in anticipation of -- growing competition for water among different economic sectors and different types of users, countries across the developing world have embarked upon a process of water governance reform. Also the emergence of new types of uses and users (such as hydro-electric corporations, mining and industrial companies, large-scale agricultural enterprises, urban water supply utilities, etc.) who in addition to secure water access also need formally sanctioned water rights to enable and protect their investments have provided impetus to this trend. During the past decades a wave of water governance reforms has swept across the developing world. Policies, laws and administrative guidelines have been proposed, challenged, approved and are currently in the process of being implemented in numerous countries, including in countries such as Bangladesh, Chile, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Zambia, just to name a few, have reformed their legal and regulatory framework for water governance (Ravnborg, in press). Common to this recent wave of water reform is that it constitutes an attempt to replace complex, often locally negotiated and overlapping sets of water rights with a unified legal framework for water allocation. The aim is to move decisions on water access and water allocation out of the realm of things that are negotiated locally into the realm of things that are negotiated and sanctioned through statutory institutions based on a set of pre-defined social, environmental and economic criteria. Moreover, many of the recent water reforms entail a range of potentially pro-poor provisions, such as the notion de minimis uses exempted from the requirement to obtain a formal water use permit, intended to secure the water access of e.g. rural households and small-scale farmers. Despite the often sound economic, social and environmental rationales underlying the water governance reforms, in many developing countries these are implemented in contexts characterised not only by high levels of inequality, but also by weak administrative and regulatory capacity. As noted by the UNDP, this combination constitutes a significant challenge because "....the importance of power in shaping the outcomes from legislation [tends to be] inversely related to regulatory capacity" implying that "[w]eak regulatory capacity increases the scope for exploitation of unequal relationships" (Human Development Report 2006:182). Thus in many developing countries, there is a risk that actual outcomes of the recent wave of water reforms in terms of secure water rights for all will fall short of expectations due to this implementation gap. Drawing on field research conducted in Nicaragua during the time following from the approval of its new water law and regulation in 2007, this paper examines the extent to which the new water governance framework is likely to secure and strengthen the water entitlements of small-scale farmers upon which development opportunities so critically depend in face of the growing competition for water e.g. from large-scale agricultural enterprises. Methods and materials Apart from long-term engagement with the issue of water governance in Nicaragua, the paper draws upon two data sets. The first data set consists of all administrative resolutions related to water and the National Water Authority, published in the Nicaraguan Gazette from 2010 to date. These resolutions primarily announce water concessions granted. According to Nicaragua's water law, district authorities have the mandate to authorise the use of water for small-scale irrigation of areas smaller than three hectares. These authorisations are therefore not announced in the Nicaraguan Gazette. The second data set consists of district authorisations of water use for small-scale irrigation issued by in two districts -- one in the northern Nicaraguan hillsides where small-scale farming prevails and another in the northern part of the pacific plains where small-scale farms are found in between large-scale estates. The district authorisations are recorded through interviews and consultation of district files. These two data sets and associated supporting material, e.g. technical reports such as social, environmental and hydrological impact assessments, are analysed in order to identify the types of concessions and authorisations granted, their location, the types of beneficiaries as well as in order to classify the administrative process(es) leading to the concession or authorisation being granted. Results (preliminary -- as the analysis of the dataset is ongoing) Close to 100 water-use concessions have been granted to data by the National Water Authority since its establishment in 2010, while the number of district authorisations is still limited, being administratively hampered by the slow progress with respect to establishing an institutional agreement between the National Water Authority and the district authorities. A significant part of the water concessions relate to the use of water for irrigation and to agricultural investment project, in many cases reflecting the requirement put by the financial partners to document a formally sanctioned permission to abstract water for irrigation purposes. Conclusions (preliminary) The paper concludes that in contexts of inequality and of weak administrative and regulatory capacity, prospects are that unless corrective action is taken to strengthen the sub-national tiers of water governance, the current wave of water governance reforms will contribute to a gradual process of concentration of enforceable water rights in the hands of the few and thereby weaken, rather than securing the often informal water rights currently held by smallholder farmers across the developing world. 1. HLPE. Forthcoming. "Water and food security". 2. Ravnborg, H.M. In press. "Water competition, water governance and food security." Christoplos, I. and A. Pain. Eds. (Forthcoming). New Challenges to Food Security: From Climate Change to Fragile States. Routledge. 3. UNDP. 2006. "Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global Water crisis". Human Development Report 2006. Palgrave Macmillan.

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