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Water in the Anthropocene: Post-conference report on the Earth System Governance special session

Earth System Governance Project (editor), -. 2013. Water in the Anthropocene: Post-conference report on the Earth System Governance special session. . Earth System Governance Project


From 21-25 May 2013, the Global Water System Project hosted an international conference on the global dimensions of water system changes due to anthropogenic and natural influences. The Earth System Governance Project convened a special session entitled “Water in the Anthropocene: Challenges for Science and Governance – Indicators, Thresholds and Uncertainties of the Global Water System.” The session was chaired by Prof. Joyeeta Gupta (University of Amsterdam (UVA) and UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education).

Raquel dos Santos of UNESCO-IHE and the UVA discussed pro-poor policies and urban water governance issues; Charlotte de Bruyn of the Hebrew University Israel presented on negotiating institutional mechanisms for transboundary water agreements, Susanne Schmeier of the Hertie School of Governance discussed science-policy architecture in River Basin Organisations, and Kirstin Conti of UN-IGRAC and the UVA discussed norms of ground water governance. Following these presentations, there were discussions on the future of water governance. Crucial insights and six key recommendations from this session are presented below.

Key Insights

  • Although international epistemic communities have played a significant role in designing and building consensus around international water law, environmental issues tend to be systematically under-emphasized in water governance.
  • The Millennium Development Goals have helped to prioritize access to water and sanitation services, but the poorest of the poor still lack access to water.
  • Conflict resolution measures are absolutely necessary in water agreements, but transaction costs represent a critical factor influencing their inclusion therein.
  • Although the role of science as a basis for decision-making is recognized, its specific influence on water governance implementation is largely dependent upon policymaker receptiveness. 

Six Key Recommendations

  1. Global policy processes have an impact on national and local policy, but local level policies may not go far enough.  For example, MDGs aimed at addressing problems of the poorest half of society led to implementation focused mostly on low-hanging fruit, further marginalizing the poorest of the poor! Meeting these needs calls for more research, pro-poor policy and a human rights approach.
  2. Water problem definitions and research must be co-constructed with social actors in order to be socially and policy relevant. Furthermore, social actors need to be included throughout the research process in an iterative manner, in order to make results usable for practitioners.
  3. Global scientific assessments of water science are scarce and should be widely undertaken.
  4. Existing global assessment processes try to avoid policy prescription in order to be politically palatable. On one hand, this useful because it allows for contextual political processes to make the most appropriate policy decisions. On the other, policymakers can then pick and choose the most politically opportunistic options. Scientific assessments should, at the very least, be able to vocalize unacceptable options
  5. Knowledge brokers are increasingly needed in the water field.
  6. Public-private partnerships may offer an alternative option for raising resources and engaging social actors in water management. But translating these into contracts may bring the issue of water management into the realm of non-transparency and secrecy, thereby enacting the opposite of good governance. This calls for actively engaging legal and other social science scholars in understanding the conditions under which such partnerships can become compatible with good governance. Special attention should be paid to public-private partnerships with private companies, as there are conflicting legal frameworks for international private contracts and national resource management and sustainability. 

For more information, contact: Prof. Joyeeta Gupta,

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