Facts and figures about water governance

Water governance is defined by the political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place, and which directly or indirectly affect the use, development and management of water resources and water service delivery at different levels of society.


The water crisis is essentially a crisis of governance and societies are facing a number of social, economic and political challenges on how to govern water more effectively.
Water governance can be said to be effective when there is equitable, environmentally sustainable and efficient use of water resources and its benefits. Such efficient use includes minimizing transaction costs and making the best use of a resource.

Although there is no single model for effective governance, the following basic attributes are likely to represent some of its features:

  • participation: all citizens should have a voice throughout processes of policy and decision-making
  • transparency: information should flow freely within a society
  • equity: all groups in society should have opportunities to improve their well-being
  • accountability: governments, the private sector and civil society organizations should be accountable to the public or the interests they are representing
  • coherency: the increasing complexity of water resource issues, appropriate policies and actions must be taken into account so that they become coherent, consistent and easily understood
  • responsiveness: institutions and processes should serve all stakeholders and respond properly to changes in demand and preferences, or other new circumstances
  • integrative: water governance should enhance and promote integrated and holistic approaches
  • ethical considerations: water governance must be based on the ethical principles of the societies in which it functions, for example by respecting traditional water rights.

Water tariffs shape the access to water of poor households. Most governments regulate tariffs to achieve a range of equity and efficiency objectives. They are designed to provide water that is affordable to households and to generate enough revenues to cover part or all of the costs of delivery. The problem in many cases is that tariff structures intended to enhance equity have the opposite effect.

With 1.4 million inhabitants, Porto Alegre, in Brazil, has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the country and a human development index comparable to that in rich countries. Effective municipal governance in water supply and sanitation has played a big part in this success story. Municipal water providers have achieved universal access to water. Prices for water—US $0.30 a litre—are among the lowest in the country. The utility’s governance structure combines regulatory oversight with a high level of public participation.

In many places of the world, a staggering 30 to 40% of water or more goes unaccounted for due to water leakages in pipes and canals and illegal tapping.

For much of recent history, policy-makers have focused their attention on three great users of water: industry, agriculture and households. Lacking a vocal political constituency, the fourth great user, the environment, has been ignored. Today, we know that inland water systems such as wetlands, lakes and floodplains all provide vital ecological services that depend on water.

Over the next four decades water governance will be operating in the space between an immovable barrier and an irresistible force. The immovable barrier is the ecological limit to water use. The irresistible force is being brought to bear by the mounting demands from industry for water and from urban populations for food.

Information from:
the 1st United Nations World Water Development Report ‘Water for People, Water for Life’ (2003)
the 2nd United Nations World Water Development Report, ‘Water, a shared responsibility’ (2006)
the Human Development Report 2006

Source: UNESCO Water Portal, November 2006

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