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Understanding water governance

Understanding water governance in challenging environments: how institutions adapt to change

Research project funded by the British Academy 2011/12

In 2011 Frances Cleaver and colleagues from Universities of Bradford and Dar es Salaam carried out a programme of research into water governance and institutions in the Usangu plains in Tanzania. The research was funded by the UK’s British Academy and built on outcomes from research some ten years earlier funded by the Department for International Development ( DFID)

Summary of findings

How do institutions that govern water adapt to changing conditions? Who are the winners and losers and what are the implications for development? 

Securing access to water and its sustainable management are pressing challenges in the context of climate, socio-economic and political change. In mainstream development policy there is a strong emphasis on ‘getting institutions right’ for good water governance through the careful design of decision-making arrangements such as water user associations. Critics suggest however that such institutions often elude design; that arrangements for water governance are embedded in a range of everyday activities and are unequally shaped by power relations.

Informed by these differing views of institutional development (‘mainstream’ and ‘critical’) a team of researchers set out to explore evolving arrangements for water governance in the Usangu Plains, South West Tanzania.  The research was funded by the British Academy. Fieldwork was undertaken in 2011-2012 but researchers were also able to draw on the results of a previous project in the same area (Sustainable Management of Usangu Wetlands and its Catchment funded by the UK Department for International Development1998-2002)

The research explored water management institutions (user associations, village assemblies, social networks, councils of elders, configurations of rights) in the Usangu plains, Tanzania. It found that:

  • Institutional arrangements are complex and plural, evolving through processes of bricolage. People piece together and adapt elements of tradition, bureaucracy, informal practices and formal rules to produce hybrid institutions. These may blend elements of the formal and informal, the traditional and modern.
  • These institutions are also shaped by wider societal trends (economy, demography, climate, politics). Prevailing configurations of power at various scales shape the ‘room for manouevre’ for stakeholders to adapt and benefit from governance arrangements.
  • Institutions alone do not secure good water governance. This is also shaped by physical factors (topography) and by infrastructural mechanisms (canals, gates, off takes). 
  • The outcomes of governance arrangements in the Usangu plains, in terms of access, livelihoods and political voice are patterned in favour of smallholder irrigation farmers. Through designed institutions farmers could sometimes take action to protect rights and address inequalities of access but they tended to increase the voice and influence of powerful farmers. Pastoralists, fisherfolk, poor rainfed farmers are marginalised in such arrangements. Efforts to build stronger institutions appear to have had limited effect on water flows downstream.  

For more of our conceptual and empirical findings see briefing note and project outputs

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